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The Cost of Faith

I wouldn’t say I am religious, but I would affirm I am spiritual. I do not like doctrine and I find the word religion to be incredibly loaded. The practice of religion is very much a currency in India – every place of worship, especially the ones that we have been to, will be surrounded by shops and attractions that require money. It is impossible to estimate how much this brings in, but you can assume it is a hefty amount and it is inevitably mostly cash in hand.

When my parents brought me up, they were not afraid to admit that they did not have the answers to my questions. Whenever we conducted anything religious, there were always holes to be found in meanings and understandings, but it was a challenge to find out the answer – it was not something to be ignored. This inquisitiveness has never left me. In fact, it has probably permeated into every part of my life.

Our last day in Mumbai was important to my Mum. The school of thought within which my family has learnt about Hinduism is based in a small insitution in Mumbai. Early on a Sunday morning we made our way to the lecture theatre and sat in the room where the teaching had first begun over 80 years ago. Having seen it on videos and in pictures, it was like de ja vu when we walked into the courtyard and took to the benches at the back.

The man who started the movement demanded that it should not be outwardly publicised, but instead should be passed from person to person, so I will not name him here. However, this weekend would have been the celebration of his 95th birthday and so there were people present from all over the world. My mother had actually met him when he had been alive, and their first meeting was when she was only a girl, a little younger than me, just 20km away from where we stood.

He was responsible for the development of the first university in the world that was built on the ancient tapovan system of education – focusing on the development of the individual, rather than their future aspirations. This unassuming campus was tucked away in the suburbs of Mumbai and it was the beginning of my Mum’s faith. It would also be the birthplace of mine.

It is difficult to describe. There were very few buildings, but the place itself was inundated with nature. It was completely green and you could barely hear the sounds of the noisy highway once you were through the gates. The intention was to create tranquillity. To remove the impurities of the mind by purifying the landscape around them. It had a profoundly uplifting quality.

The students were mild mannered and wore simple white clothes. There was not much talking and people from all walks of life trundled barefoot through the landscape. It was only open to visitors on a Sunday afternoon for a few hours and so this was a chance for the outside world to creep in and take a peek. There was a point in my adolescence when I thought this could be my destination, but that seems like a long time ago now.

Before we left, Mum stood standing in front of the flowered gateway. She was crying and looking forward in silence. She told me how she remembered the last time she was here and spoke to the man who made this place a reality. He was sitting on a bench and greeted her like a distant uncle – she remembered seeing a twinkle in his eye but was too naïve to understand the impact that he would have in her life at that point. Years later she stood in the same spot and imparted that knowledge to us knowing that this was where it had all begun, where it had all started to make sense.

A stranger looking onward came over to ask her why she was crying. She said they were tears of longing joy. He smiled warmly and introduced himself and his wife. They made polite conversation and reminded us of the reasons why he was there – to reinvigorate his faith. Mum smiled back and looked at me with the same expression. She was not upset anymore. He took his leave and I never learned his name, but I remember his warm smile and the way his eyes lit up when we spoke.

That probably doesn’t mean much, but it made all the difference to me. There are many places here that will measure the size of your faith by the thickness of your wallet. They will try to fool you and capture your belief. However, I am forever grateful for the fact that my faith was presented to me as my decision. I was not told what to believe and not vilified for what I thought. It has always been a healthy process of re-assessment and contemplation.

I am happy to be a part of something that recognises the kindness and dignity of complete strangers. For a man to look at us and offer conversation as a means of solace, with no ulterior motive. When you can instil a thought like that, there isn’t the need for expensive prayers. Humanity is enough.

The Idolatry of Man

Gandhi is a morally ambiguous figure. Here, he is everywhere you turn. From bank notes to sweet shops to statues, the familiar small face and round glasses are an icon around the country. The big surprise was that there is very little that you can actually learn about him that you haven’t already seen in pictures. His childhood home, in Porbandar, is adorned with a number of obscure paintings of him in various stages of life with a few photographs scattered around for good measure – it was incredibly disappointing. The second stop, the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, is a much more detailed memorial, but again focuses on perceptions of the man rather than the man himself.

There are growing factions of people that highlight that he was a walking contradiction. A quick Google search will highlight opinions of archaic misogyny and very questionable sexual conduct especially in relation to his nieces. It is unclear whether these accounts are true, but the Gandhi estate has never formally commented on the allegations. Not to mention the fact that the following generations of Gandhis (although not through direct lineage), notably Sonya, Indira and Rajiv have been mired in controversy. Rajiv Gandhi is himself involved in court proceedings at this moment. When you look at this in context, it paints a very murky picture of India’s young history.

There is always going to be an element of idol worship here. Hinduism is built on the idea of concentration on the vision of God in order to sharpen the mind and allow it to build its discipline for the next stages of spirituality. However, when the person in question is unable to see this divinity, it is easy to confuse this worship with men, and therefore imperfections. Whether it be Sachin Tendulkar or Mahatma Gandhi, once you blindly follow and believe everything they do, you become a slave to their own indiscretions. There is no man that is above scrutiny or questioning.

As we move away from Baroda and leave our family, I realise that my faith has taken a knock. When you are growing up, you do not have the instruments to analyse and weigh up the evidence that come with worship and belief. You blindly look up to those that are written about favourably in history books and by your teachers. It is only when you look up from your textbook that you realise how political the words are, and how it has been written with a purpose. The image of Gandhi has been perfectly formed to prevent anyone from questioning his behaviour. A sweet, old man who used non-violent means to tear down an empire – that is quite a story in itself.

However, my judgement of the figure remains reserved. As with my faith going forward, I am tentative to blindly believe anything that is put in front of me. It requires research, asking the right questions and trusting the right answers. The principles that Gandhi himself advocated has resonated with a number of people that may never have had contact with these Vedic principles (they are all taken from the Bhagvad Geeta) and this is positive. But the meat of the man is in practice, and despite whether he hand-loomed his clothes or not, if he did not practice what he preached then he does not deserve the idolatry that he is so readily given.

Everything must be considered in context. There is nothing to say that Gandhi was not one of the greatest men that ever lived. But I don’t think there is any such thing as a saint.

Stop Talking Bull.

This has been bugging me for quite a while, but it came to a head this weekend. I was lucky enough to attend a conference and listen to some seminars and workshops given by ‘motivational speakers’ – you will see why I have said that ironically soon. I was listening to this one guy talking complete nonsense about networking and pitching yourself, but he was so expressive and passionate that everyone seemed to be mesmerised by him. What made it even worse was that some of the audience were young people and they were being taking in by what was essentially complete drivel. Then the talk ended (much to my delight) and the man announced that he was selling a book and a course if people wanted to learn more.

I was expecting people to get up and leave, hearing the ka-ching sound from the pound signs bouncing over this guy’s head, but they didn’t. They rushed from their seats and signed on the dotted line – that line was worth £100. I literally exclaimed ‘Are you serious?!’ seeing people clamouring to cash in on this supposedly priceless opportunity. Realising that at this point everyone seemed to be looking at me with disdain, I looked at them with disbelief and like Ross Kemp, I got the hell outta there! But that made me think…are motivational speakers just straight up conmen?

The simple answer to that is no, of course not. There are plenty of experienced individuals full of morsels of wisdom that they must share with society in order to empower them to be on the same level. But some of them get paid ridiculously to do it and therein lies the problem. Okay, sure there is always some reimbursement for a person’s time and cost, but surely paying someone thousands to essentially tell people what to do is a bit ridiculous? But people buy into it. They sign up for the courses. They make the notes. And without knowing it, they have in their own way been indoctrinated.

There is one solution to this problem, and again it is a very simple one. Do not take things at face value. Question them. Do not be afraid to tell someone they are wrong (in a polite way of course – screaming at people never solves anything). If you can stand up for what you believe in and have the confidence to fight for them, then the world will bow at your feet. It does not happen straight away and the fear often draws away the confidence that you have to say anything against the tide of popular opinion. But nothing worthy is ever achieved easily. Once you have harnessed the power to question as well as the power to answer, nothing, and I mean nothing is impossible (and that is not a cliché).

So when you are sitting in a talk or if you ever get the chance, listening to a motivational speaker, take what they say and really try to intellectually unravel it. If they are talking bull, then start waving your big red cape and shouting “Torro!” – and don’t let that bull get the better of you ever again.