In Faith. Renuka Narayanan, one of India's leading mainstream commentators on religion and spirituality, look at ways to fill the empty space that Sartre famously called 'the God-sized hole' in our consciousness. Eschewing extreme viewpoints, she tries to apply the Big Idea to our little lives, and makes many interfaith discoveries. This volume contains a selection of her writing in 'Faithline', the popular column begun in April 2000 which also draws frequent protest from the orthodoxy for the questions it asks or the pint it makes.
Prospecting the middle ground - 'a thorny, rocky, slippery path' -where several shades of truth can be glimpsed, Narayanan looks at every day events and comes up with codes to live by. A musical performance, for instance, become an opportunity to discover the joy of differences, and the joy of accepting such differences; while a good monsoon shower opens her eyes to the small pleasures of life that offset its casual cruelties. Among other things, Narayanan examines the angst of a secularist, the secret rhythm of Mumbai, the significance of festivals, the power of Devi and the popularity of Shiva. Drawing on our resources of received wisdom, she brings together the Suff and Thiruvalluvar, the Granth Sahib and the teaching of Zaratushtra, the Vedas and the Bible, Begun Akhtar and David Bowie, as she considers what it means to be human, and Indian.
Faith is an elegant, passionate appeal for a genuinely pluralistic approach, whereby we acknowledge the complex and sometimes bitter realities of our history, while adhering firmly to a positive vision of the future.
Renuka Narayanan is Arts and Culture Editor at the Indian Express, where she also writes 'Faithline', a weekly column on religion. She has co-authored A passion for Dance with Yamini Krishnamuthi and Maximize Your Life with Pavan K. Verma. She has also written The Book of Prayer and The Book of Indian Wisdom.
This book owes its existence to Shekhar Gupta, Editor-in-Chief of the Indian Express, who made me create and anchor the column 'Faithline' on the paper's Editorial Page. It began in April 2000. I write it myself for Mondays and invite a guest writer or select an extract for Thursdays. There's a huge amount of elbow room allowed and it's been spiked precisely twice (of course, I can not tell you why). By a quirk of fate, 'Faithline' is the only space on religion/spirituality in the national media given to a fixed, in-house writer. It makes me proud of the Indian Express-that it took a chance with an untried writer on a subject as sensitive, in a society as patriarchal, in a country as explosive as India. Normally one has to look the part-a man, with a beard to confer instant gravitas on his pronouncements-but true to the spirit of India's feistiest newspaper, my editor picked 'a party girl in jeans'.
To some hardcore news colleagues, however, I initially seemed a mildly comic figure tending a tiny cabbage patch, or else a grim bookworm with a heedful of arcane information, standing on one leg in some lost tundra of arid opinion. Happily, things have turned out otherwise.
All writers desire this line as an epitaph: 'Her sins were scarlet but her books were read.' Express readers reacted swiftly, as people are wont to when used to a paper that actually breaks news. Letters and e-mails in response to the column suggested that a connection had been made with the Indian heart.
So the real find by this column has been you, the Indian reader. You really are pretty nice. You have a sense of humour, you are irreverent without being rude, your heart is generous, you are putting up a great fight against all the awful things dished out by life and paltry behaviour offends you very much. You are horribly sentimental, you hum like a taut lute striving at the least touch of beauty and goodness, you respond with joy to anything worthwhile and inspiring. And you are so incredibly affectionate! Your letters and e-mails are all the proof anybody needs that India's heart is oriented to the noble ideas of our Constitution, to the better traditions of Devabhumi.
That's you, the majority. There are plenty of men who write angry. Abusive e-mails and letters. Some time ago, I e-mailed His Holiness the Shankaracharya of Kanchipuram about this. I thought he should know. His reply, through his assistant, was, 'you are advised not to be perturbed or bothered by some adverse criticism and remarks. His Holiness blesses you to carry on with your good work.' This to a columnist who cannot accept Lord Ram as a worthy role model, who constantly questions her ancestral faith from deep within the tradition and absolutely wants to articulate a middle ground between faiths for dialogue, to build 'a community of communities' as the ancient Marthoma Ghurch, founded 52 CE in India by the Apostle St Thomas, puts it. (It is a church that is wholly India, owing no allegiance to spiritual or temporal powers elsewhere.)
Meanwhile, there's work to do in our self-definition of who we are and what makes us happy, realized beings. I would not like to make sweeping statements about how al religions are equally 'good'. Just as some priests of the Semitic religions may find it hard to fully accept the faiths that bloomed first on Indian soil, some Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists and Hindus may not be wholly comfortable with the doctrines of the Ahl-e-Kitab, or the people of The Book.
But since we all have to live together and work together, it makes eminent practical sense to talk to each other more, find out more about one another, visit more, eat meals, play games, share community projects. Only through contact can we developed attachment. If every residents' welfare association in India were to make an active effort to include every community in each little project-and if non-vegetarians of every community were a little careful of the sensibilities of vegetarians and vice versa- we might be able to pull it off. If we had more Muslims in our mainstream colonies instead of pushing them into ghettos and exclusive enclaves, if Muslims met Hindus halfway instead of stereotypes. Is there another way, really, to resolve our problems as communities and thus as a nation?
Politics and sociology are huge issues, no doubt. But deeper still is the important relationship between a person and God: how do we fill the 'go-sized hole in us', as the existentialist Sartre put it? Every faith has its answers, but there's also a host of good literature, folklore and films to illuminate life codes, amplify earth-songs and help us build a private inner standard of things we'd never do, and thing we ought to do.
Is God, perhaps, to be found in the defining and refining of these choices, in connecting with a marg darshan that aims to help rather than harm others? Adrift on the Sea of Samsara, what can one do but try to find the God-in-us, through words and deeds?
The letters of so many Express readers have kept 'Faithline' bobbing along. I don't presume to have the answers. But I guess we want to be open to the questions and take a good shot at peering into the unrelenting face of Chaos and perhaps sport that one fiery star of Meaning. Meanwhile, it seems important to play whichever hand we are dealt with grace and goodwill and hang on to the comfort of the Name. Despite all the evidence against the existence of Divinity, we seem to need God anyway.
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