Faith in India

If Indian life was to be embodied, faith would be its blood. It doesn’t matter what religion an Indian practises, everyone is guided by faith, often unknowingly. While some faith communities formally pass their teachings to the next generation, most people in India would imbibe faith via day to day traditions, popular media and often stories told by grandparents.

Every shopkeeper in the country prays before starting business each day and every school starts with prayers. There is no exception to this rule. With that said, it is quite bizarre that most of these people are hesitant to call themselves ‘people of faith’. The faith identity of each person in India is so enmeshed with the person as a whole that most people (including us before this fellowship!) would not even recognize the presence of faith. Would you ask a human being “are you made up of bones?” and does everybody recall each day that they are made of bones?

We all in India engage in charity by the way of traditions, unconsciously donating to places of worship, holding community kitchens and doing poojas (offering prayers to the gods). All of these are inextricably linked with faith but done mostly because of each family’s traditions and at times, social compulsions. Faith in India is on an auto-pilot mode, one does not shift the gears, one just runs along with it.

These days, the Hindus are celebrating navratri (nine pure nights in sanskrit). During these nine nights, nine forms of the Hindu Goddess are worshiped. Every Hindu community –  on the basis of which part of India they belong to – celebrates it in a completely different manner. One could mistake them for different religions! The festive season has kicked off as people all over the country are engrossed in colorful traditions, prayers, music, dance and drama. This is India of the 21st century, continuing traditions 5,000 years old unknowingly and unintentionally.

Yesterday, we went to watch Ramlila (the enacted story of God Ram’s life) at a neighbourhood park.  We were stunned, because this park just fifteen days ago was a swamp, a marsh land full of puddles and mosquitoes, and grass as tall as three feet. However, the Ramlila organising committee has got this park cleaned, planted new saplings and carpeted the ground for the nine day long show. We were also pleasantly surprised when shop boys from the nearby market greeted us at the security. Our local tailor told us happily that this is a great volunteering option for them as they earn a stipend and dinner by working for the Ramlila after their shops close. Later, he cheekily added “aur punya bhi kama rhe hain” [and I am also earning good deeds].

This made us think that this Ramlila committee had worked on two Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) – environmental sustainability and ending poverty and hunger. Faith here was working as a force for good. And yet, like everything connected with faith in India, this was done unknowingly and unconsciously!

Aparajita Bharti and Sarmistha Pattanayak, Faiths Act Fellows

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