A few weeks ago, during the auspicious week of Diwali, I held back from writing about the sacred day that is so special for Hindus in India and abroad. As a therapist, I did not wish to compromise my perceived neutrality. However, come Eid, I wished to share myself with others, and experienced no need to remain neutral. With that emotion, came the realization that one is hardest on oneself, and those that one loves. Perhaps the reluctance was the manifestation of my mother complex; mothers generally feed others before they feed themselves.
I have unique experiences of multiculturalism, that are unmatched by any one I know, and this weblog is an attempt in trying to understand the phenomenology of those lived experiences. I lived for 16 years in the Hindu dominated Central India. Next few years were lived in Muslim dominated Kashmir (6.5 years) and Middle East (8.5 years). And then I lived in Australia (3.5 years) and have been in US since 1998. When I put the maths together, I realize that this roughly translates to 16, 15, 16 – so if I were to temporally slice my life in three exact portions, I would have spent roughly equal time exposed to mainstream Hinduism, mainstream Islam and mainstream Christianity. Add to this mixture the fact that my ancestral blood consists of equal parts of Persian and Aryan immigrants to North India, and you can see that multiculturalism forms a psychological as well as a cellular aspect of my being in this world and relating to it.
For the first 15 years I celebrated all Hindu festivals with great vigor, the festivities of Diwali and the phenomenal fireworks were powerful because Ayodhya, the hometown of Ram, was in the state of Uttar Pradesh, of which Agra was the capital, the colors of Holi were specially powerful because we lived an hour from Mathura, the homeland of Krishna – where it all originated, the emotionally intense bonds of Raksha Bandhan personified by the queen of Jhansi who had tied Rakhi to the Moslem ruler seeking his protection to stave off the British forces, the festivities were all very intensely celebrated and experienced because I was in the heart of Hindu mainland.
Then, for the next 15 years I celebrated Muslim festivals with more vigor than I did my Hindu festivals during this period because I lived in Kashmir and my life was intractably linked with those of my Moslem friends. My best friend in college stalled his wedding when his parents expressed reservation about my involvement in his wedding procession. Women aren’t allowed to go in the wedding processions, in Moslem wedding ceremonies, but because of him, I was the only woman in his family that attended his Nikah. My family almost disowned me when they came to know that I had eaten out of trami, the large ornamental plates in which traditional Moslems share their ceremonial meals. For us, though, there was little separation. I participated in Ramadan by being mindful of not eating publicly, by being respectful of the million Azaans that would drive me crazy in their loudness five times a day, and yet were respectful reminders of loudspeakers in Agra – where I grew up – blaring Hanuman Chalisas during their non stop 48 hour recitals. What you do unto others, you have to smile and bear. And we learnt to be respectful of Azans just as we had respected the recitals. We struggled to understand the significance of Ramadan, we participated in zillions of Iftaar parties, hosting some of our own, we always, always wore new clothes on Eid when we went around vehemently demanding Eidies – and were never refused ! On their part, my friends accompanied me on my trips to Shankaracharya temple and were respectful of our faith. They attended our religious festivals with as much reverence as we, as young adults, had towards our own. Friends even accompanied me and my fiance on my long trek through the snow covered Himalayan mountains to the Amarnath temple, chanting Jai Shiv Shankar with much more vigor and enthusiasm than I could muster, sometimes carrying me on their backs through the icy cold waters of rivers that we had to cross on the way. My Hindu fiance and later my husband was infinitely less protective, supportive and enabling in every area of life than my friends ever were. Did our respective faiths really matter in our daily lives ? No, our “goodness” was an innate quality of how our parents had raised us, it had nothing to do with our religion per se. We were all well bounded by, and well grounded in our own cultures, and yet, love transcended the divide.
Now for the last 15 years while I have lived in Australia and US, we have celebrated Christmas as our prime festival. Come December, I bet my Christmas tree can beat any other in decorations, my home is all decked up, and the exterior is usually one of the most brilliantly decorated houses in the neighborhood. And though my kids are 11, 12 and 21, the younger ones still believe in Santa’s generosity in spite of my groaning, protesting and traumatised wallet. Thanksgiving is as special a Turkey meal as it is for everyone else and friends always make sure that I am either invited somewhere, or someone is invited to my home.
All this wasn’t planned or ordered or thought through over the years. It just happened instinctually. Effortlessly. And I consider such a flux amazing. And what has been more amazing is that I have lived and loved equally everywhere. People everywhere have been closer to me than my own family could be because of distances, and because families are what they are – sometimes loving, sometimes nasty. I remember once having a serious tiff with a Moslem friend of mine in Melbourne, Australia. His mother witnessed our argument, and later when she was alone with me she broke down and cried in my arms saying :”You are the only family he has, he needs you more than he needs me, please don’t ever abandon him!” As I write this, my eyes are turning misty, because these words are etched on my psyche forever – and it has been 30 years of togetherness, happiness, pain, sickness and it hasn’t always been easy, but we have survived because the depth of our emotions was meaningful. When he couldn’t afford his Walima, I made it possible for him. There were no boundaries – what was mine, was his as well. It would have been unthinkable, a sacrilege not to have offered everything I had. In an act of pure love and devotion, I tied Raakhi to two of my classmates, a thread that seals a brother-sister relationship. After college in Kashmir, I moved to Delhi and on the eve of Raakhi the following year, late that night I heard a knock on my door. He had taken a week off from his business, flown all the way from Kashmir especially to be with me on this pious day of Raksha Bandhan. He always made me feel held and protected. My own brother had lived 20 miles away at the time, and we hadn’t met for Raakhi because he was too busy.
The following year, my wedding was hosted in Delhi, and my family did not know the city and its offerings well. But we did not have to worry because everything was mostly arranged and managed by few friends of mine who closed their business in Kashmir and flew down to Delhi to make it happen. As is true of all Indian weddings, this bride was just a princess, a VIP spectator in her own wedding. A very large group from class of 84, Electrical Engineering travelled from near and far to attend it.
Later, when we moved to Dubai, my friend, mentor, employer and his beautiful wife saw me through my pregnancy and childbirth. My wish was their command, they made sure every craving of mine was satisfied, that I never had to cook or clean if I didn’t feel like it, took me on infinite shopping trips to accumulate clothes for the baby, drove me the hospital at midnight – in many false alarms too. During my labor, they paced up and down the corridors while my then husband sat home and watched television! I spent two weeks at their home, recuperating in bed while she took care of my daughter and arranged for daily massages to help the body overcome the trauma of labor and childbirth, and later, as we entered the threshold of our home with the new baby, she pulled me back, saying “Bismillah naheen bologi ?” Thankful for the reminder, I repeated her prayer with infinite gratitude for the divine gift in my arms, and for having a family like theirs. Did it matter what language those words were in? Could my own god had given me anything better to ease my troubles ? I don’t know. I could only experience the blessings. Still later my daughter spent far more time with them, her Moslem godparents, than she did with me because I worked – until she was 7 yo and we left for Australia. Those remain my some of my fondest memories of a family, nurturance and mothering. Their warmth and concern for us had relieved my then husband of his responsibilities and obligations towards us. It was only with their nurturance that my marriage lasted for 18 long years. Without them, it would have collapsed much earlier. And when I moved out of that environment, leaving Dubai for Australia, the lack of the support that had compensated for my ex-husband’s failures stared me in my face. There was no one to soften the blow of my exploitative relationship and refill my own emotional bank balance. My marriage collapsed within a year.
A few years ago I had a stroke, and feared paralysis. A long time Moslem friend repeatedly comforted me by saying : “No matter what happens, I will always take care of you! I’m not sure how I will, nor in what shape or form that help will be, but I will never let you suffer!” In US, one of my Christian friend made herself available for almost 3 years – she babysat my children several times a week often at great inconvenience to her own personal relationships, a sacrifice that enabled me to complete my Master’s program. This was something that even my family wouldn’t, couldn’t and didn’t do for me. Heck, even the children’s Hindu father and his family has never wanted to mind the children.
These exchanges have created a sense of respect for individuals, regardless of their religious orientation. I now have an experiential understanding that it isn’t a Hindu, a Moslem or a Christian that is good or bad. I know all psychopathology is individualistic, it is intrinsic to a particular person, and depends on early familial influences and an internal moral structure. As for all these wonderful people in my life, our humanity has become intermixed. Extracting it, and each other, from each other’s life, and relating with each other only on the religious levels, is impossible for some of us. As we watch the killing and the carnage in Kashmir, it may be too easy for me to hate the faceless, nameless terrorists, but I always wonder – was this someone I knew? Someone I loved? It is impossible to separate from my own past. A past personified by people so loving and tender.
And through all these journeys, during this period of intense search for personal identity and my widening spirituality, and through such close encounter with other religions, I have also come to experiential realisation that Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh, Yehweh, Christ, Allah and Prophet Mohammed are numinous symbols that belong to people. They never belonged to any religion. They aren’t commodities that can be marketed and sold to the hapless masses. As such, I refuse to accept such copyright enforced by organized religions. I resent being told which role models I should pick and how I should relate to them and what I should or shouldn’t believe in – because that assumes I have no brain, no awareness of my own. These numinous symbols for consciousness belong to me, they are mine to love, to cherish and to interpret in any way I see fit. I am free to have a personal, and a unique relationship with my people, my prophets, my gurus and my gods. The religions organizations are simply commercial organization, created in an effort to grab power, prestige and fame. Divinity isn’t them. The interpretations created by followers of any religion represent a perspective, however valid that may be, but it is still a perspective, it is not the truth, it certainly is not my truth. My truth is within me, and in the relationship between me and mine. And as I struggle on my moral and ethical path in this world, I freely borrow from all cultures, all religious teachings, all gods, prophets and gurus, and their books because each religion has essentially represented a dawn of a new consciousness, an organization that was needed for the corrupted order of the time. As such, it cannot NOT carry a message for the betterment, for the realisation of the Self.
But does that mean I lack a religious identity of my own? Not at all. During these deep inward journeys over many years of studying psychology and experiencing the texture of spirituality, I came face to face with my inner truth. One of those truths has been the inevitable realization that my psyche is crafted by my earliest relationships. It cannot be any other way, because our psychological life begins in the womb, our neural circuits are deterministically crafted in response to our mother’s belief system, and perpetuated by our relationship with first the biological and later the symbolic mothers. Short of lobotomy, there is no getting away from that because that is the (constructed) ground we stand on, the (constructed) referential identity within which, and only within which our psychological structures can possibly locate themselves. Without that (constructed) identity, there would be a total loss of self, leading to groundlessness and psychosis. As Jung says, people who turn away from their gods turn mad, and we can see that madness endemic in society now, as technology and materialism robs our gods of their numinosity. Everything becomes ordinary. When nothing is extraordinary, when everything can be explained away, life loses its meaning, its essence, its wonder, and becomes flat. So our gods, and our religion isn’t just about paranormal, or supernormal, or about metaphysical, it creates and supports psychological structures within. And lack of numinosity causes fractures in those structures.
The word religious is made of two separate latin words – Re and Ligare – which together mean to fix again, to heal again, to bind together once again. Without religion, there is no healing, no binding together, no fixing of what is broken in the process of living. Because the psyche is always engaged in healing processes, it is said that the psyche is essentially a religious entity, ie it is always engaged in healing, fixing binding, repairing. And such healing lies not in any dogmatic religious offerings, but in our relationship with our creator, and his creation. And our Self and our humanity is a fundamental part of his creation. All other is just constructed “stuff.”
So after rebelling for many years against the religion I was born into, and refusing to accept what seemed at the time to be a grossly limiting developmental determinism, I have come a full circle, to a realization that existence without the psychological structures provided by spirituality, is very limiting, and lacks meaningful experiences. Loss of spirituality leads to loss of moral structures, loss of wisdom, stunted growth. An innate Self realization, an introspective acceptance of inherent spirituality, of a healing relationship with the divine – however that divine manifests in and for a person, is essential to lead a fulfing life. And just like the myth of Abhimanyu posits (for myths are essentially crafted from the lifeblood of human psyche, they’re lessons in our own archetypal patterns), these religious essences are crafted in the womb. Therefore I realize that I cannot change the neural structures that were initiated in the womb of my mother, nor can I disinherit the genetically coded collective aspect of my personality in any meaningful way. My psyche is, and will remain, shaped like my mother’s psyche, just like my eyes are shaped and colored like hers. Her gods have created mine. They are carved out of her flesh – biological and psychological flesh. And there is nothing I can do about it. Only my consciousness, and my personal unconscious belongs to me, and only those two aspects of my psyche can be shaped by my intellect. And such acceptance has allowed me peace, and tranquility. I am able to let go of this need for perfection, of uniformity, of universality, of logic, of rationality, of justification. (Of course there is the issue of religious conversions, but those are more like giving up your own mother. People often have compelling reasons to convert, and I honor their experiences). I am more able to accept the substratum of my collective inheritance, and put it in context of my individuality. Such acceptance has surprisingly brought insight, and understanding, which had totally eluded me until I kept either blindly following the religion of my ancestors, or rebelling against the tenets of my religious endowment. They were heirlooms, how I chose to adorn myself with them, was up to me. Once I could experience that, I embraced them whole heartily. But it was that acceptance of my innate religiosity, acceptance of the collective wisdom bequeathed to me by those that went before me, which has freed me from religious dogma. Paradoxically, it was only after I accepted and embraced my religion, that I could become a-religious. I suddenly became free of religion, I could look beyond, at the inherent symbolism that spreads across religions. Thru understanding my own roots, I understood and developed a respect for other people’s roots. My religion was, period. Just like air was. And once I stopped expending my energies on trying to rationalize and justify that air, I could focus on other aspects of life, a life that itself unfolded as a consequence of that air.
So now, I accept that my psyche is crafted out of the lifeblood of the Hindu deities and thats just the way it is going to be. And yet, because two thirds of my conscious life has been crafted in the cradle of other cultures and civilizations, I am free to enrich my life with their teachings. With this acceptance, a flood of possibilities has opened up. Whereas I felt I had been struggling against the currents of a powerful and chaotic river of religious dogma, it now feels as if the I have identified my own waters, and that water can now flow unhampered, carrying other forms of life that the river supports. There is no separation…the river and its organisms are inseparable. My spirituality has a form and shape, but is also inseparable from other objects of spirituality that flow with it.
In that spirit of self understanding and self realisation, I offer all my Muslim friends and colleagues my best wishes for the Eid-Ul-Zuha. Because I experience the structure of my own psyche, I can begin to understand their experience of their psyche – which is crafted in the shape of their early relationships, and I can understand how their spirituality, and belief system is just a part of their truth, their intrinsic being, their psychic dna. Because I revere my own autonomy and free will, I am compelled to allow them theirs. Like our nose, or the color of our skin, or our finger prints, or our dna structures, it defines who we are. And just like my nose is a part of my identity, their nose is part of theirs – and should be. There is nothing good or bad about our identity. We don’t get awards because we have a nose, and we don’t get into fights about whose nose is better. It just is. And is just so.
The following is an excerpt from the facebook page that explains the symbolism of Eid Ul Zuha, the festival that the entire Muslim community celebrates this week. My heartiest wishes for peace, prosperity and well being to all of us. The picture below is of prayers being offered at Mecca. I offer my own prayers to that which created the world, in the same spirit as these men and women seem to be offering in Mecca. And if in this sacred moment, that creator prefers that we address him as Allah, then so be it…..
Bismillah al rahman al rahim
Id-ul-Zuha is one of the most celebrated festivals among Muslims. The festival of sacrifice, when the Muslims sacrifice a goat, is observed to commemorate the great sacrifice of Prophet Ibrahim who was so devoted, faithful and obedient to God’s will that he unhesitatingly agreed to sacrifice his only son Ismail at His behest. It is said that it was to test him that Allah asked him to sacrifice his son on the altar at the mount of Mina near Mecca. Ibrahim, moved by his paternal feelings and yet determined to follow Allah’s instructions blindfolded himself before sacrificing his son and only removed the blindfold after performing the act. When he opened his eyes, he found his son alive and smiling to his great joy. On the altar, a slaughtered lamb could be seen instead. The festival is to celebrate the strong faith of those devoted to Islam. It coincides with the Haj pilgrimage in Mecca and people offer prayers in mosques. The sacrificial meat is distributed after the Eid prayers to the family and friends. Special delicacies and sweets are prepared on the occasion. The festival is observed on the tenth day of the month Dhu’l Hijja, according to the Islamic calendar. According to the Quranic text, the sacrifice of Abraham marked the end of the human sacrifices for the Semitic race and that surrendering one’s will and purpose completelt and unconditionally is the only sacrifice that Allah requires.