Current Events · Indian Religion · Personal reflections

A Desi Secularist Dilemma (Or How to Secularize a Hindu Religious Festival)

To see readers’ comments, click HERE for the previous version of this blog.

If you are part of the so-called educated, English-speaking, urban/semi-urban sections of Indian populace, and spend any time on social media, you must have noticed all the status updating, tweeting, sharing etc. that happen on most of the so-called secular ‘holidays’ (since Americans call the festivals holidays, so naturally we must call them ‘holidays’) – be it Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day, or others such.

Good. Always good to celebrate good things. Both real and virtually.

Since virtual is also real today, in a way, let me just focus on that for now.

At some point you too must have participated in ‘sharing’ of such secular celebrations – posted or liked or commented on pictures of restaurants visited or the cuisines prepared at home for mothers, fathers, beloveds, gifts gifted or received, cards presented or received etc. etc.

Good, very good. Spread and share the happiness.

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Have you noticed that there are even more ‘secular’ days now to celebrate and share photos and messages – World Poetry Day, World Earth Day, World Nature Day, World Wildlife Day, World this Day, World that day, even days to celebrate pets, dogs, cats, etc.?

Good. Good, I say.

Because we all can use reminders from time to time to do our bit in our collective responsibility toward Earth, Nature and all of Earth’s diverse creatures. And of course, also to remember to enjoy and celebrate good things like poetry, art, literature etc.

And of course, we all can use greetings of joy and happiness on Christmas.

But here is something to consider. Have you noticed how the once-religious holidays like Christmas and Easter have now been more or less ‘secularized’ for the larger Indian consumption?

Of course, many devout Indian Christians, in the spirit of Indian Bhakti, still continue to observe the various religious practices associated with these festivals. Which is how it should be.

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But as a larger global ‘holiday’ trend, the Christmas ritual that is sold aggressively for Indian urbanites, for the most part, is limited to sending greeting cards, exchange of gifts, Santa Claus, tree decoration and enjoying special meals. Is it any wonder then that our secular Indian variety, in loyal obedience to the modern ‘secular’ dictum celebrates these holidays with the same enthusiasm as Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day?

The fact that these are religious festivals now considered secular makes it more legit for our desi seculars to show their inclusiveness. And especially when the festival’s religious context is one to which our seculars may have no direct or personal affiliation, that makes them feel even more ‘secular’ when they send greetings to all humankind via a tweet or Facebook update.

Modernity and secularism both happily co-exist, as natural end-products of Western Christianity.

Of course, given the current political climate in the world, what with terrorism and all, things get a little more complicated when Eid rolls around. But the same formula still holds – the more you share Eid greetings and status updates about brotherhood and peace etc., the more secular you become.

But the biggest complication is with those other Indian festivals.

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Krishna Janmasthami, Ram Navmi, Buddha Purnima, Guru Purnima, Dussehra, Rakshabandhan, Gurupurab, Mahavir Jayanti, Basant Panchami, Onam, Pongal, Vishu, Vaisakhi, etc. etc.

First of all, there are so many of these festivals. How will a desi secular decide which one to tweet about? Big ones like Diwali, Holi, maybe? Yes, those are easy.

You see, those have been more or less secularized already. Half the job of this secularization is done when a big commercial angle is added to Diwali – super sales on everything from Amul to Audi, from Bourneville to Brighton, all-inclusive-vacation package. And if you are not going on a Diwali vacation, well, you can always celebrate Diwali without all that mumbo-jumbo of Lakshmi Puja. Just light the diyas bought in expensive boutiques, drink, gamble, exchange gifts and be merry!

Holi too has come to be associated with fun and only fun. Stripped of almost all religious markings it is now mostly a merry-making holiday with all kinds of liberties built into it. So how can it be anything but a secular holiday?

Such secularization makes Diwali and Holi nice and acceptable to our desi seculars. Why can’t the same thing be done with other festivals? Especially the problematic ones such as Ram Navmi, Dussehra, Rakshabandhan, etc.

These can’t really qualify as ‘secular’ enough holidays for our secular-minded friends. Because you can’t really celebrate them via restaurant-hopping or gift-giving or card-exchanging. Or maybe you can, I don’t know. But fasting on Krishna Janmasthami – oh, how superstitious! Tying a thread on a brother’s wrist – how patriarchal! Visiting a temple on Ram Navmi – me having anything to do with Ram, you can’t be serious?!

And so it should be perfectly understandable if on these days devout Hindus see not many (or any) words of greeting or sharing from most of the secular-minded Indians in their online acquaintance circles.

After all, seculars are rational people, you see. And these ‘holidays’ aren’t rational at all, unlike say Mother’s Day. All those Surdas bhajans about Krishna and his mother Yashoda aren’t ‘rational’ songs, they are merely ramblings of a blind fool who loved Krishna! Maybe, now maybe, if one of those bhajans could be rewritten as a Mother’s Day greeting card type of poem, in English, it just might move along the path of becoming ‘secular.’ See, this is how it is done.

When will Hindus learn? When? It is all about ‘secularizing’!

Maybe I am being too nasty. Or perhaps too hasty in my analysis. Oh, well…so let me be even more brutally honest.

On some Hindu festivals, some of our secular minded desis take it upon themselves to show us how to secularize a religious festival. They offer some good advice for all those superstitious, irrational people who tie threads and visit temples and observe fasts. In their ever-helpful, civilizing mission role, they profess – if you must celebrate Janmashtami and Rakshabandhan, appreciate the spirit of these festivals, but don’t stick to the rituals.

Good advice. Or at least it looks good anyway.

But is it, really? Are they being sincere with such advice? Does it matter, one might ask? It does.

First of all, would these seculars even consider that giving flowers and chocolates to the beloved on Valentine’s Day is also really a ritual, or does it not count as one because it is ‘oh-so-secular’?

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Honestly, do you think these ‘brown civilizers’ will lecture “follow only the Christmas spirit, give up the whole Santa stuff” to their Christian friends? Would they give such advice to devout Christians for whom the day isn’t complete without going to church or singing carols? Sure, the whole waiting for Santa Claus and the gift-giving has become more or less part of a ‘secular-commercial’ mode of this religious holiday. But will our secular-rational Indian friend tell his or her child there is no Santa Claus and all that is a superstitious mumbo-jumbo? Will they tell their children to give up this ritual? And what about the rituals associated with Eid? Shouldn’t our good-intentioned secular folks share their sound and noble advice with others also about “how to secularize religious holidays”? Why should only Hindus benefit from their good advice?

Maybe because in this desi secular worldview, it is only the Hindu who needs this advice the most.

These pagan and superstitious Hindus have been so busy worshipping crores of deities and even trees, plants, and animals that they haven’t learned the nuances of secularization process. A good secular comes to remind the Ram-worshippers or Tulsi-worshippers that they need to rise up to the ‘truth’ of the ‘secular’ world. A good secular out of his or her kindness helps the pagan Hindu see the ‘light.’ Shame on Hindus if they still refuse to give up their traditions. Shame on them for being so stubborn. Honestly, there is no hope for them, if they don’t secularize themselves and their religious holidays, as per the worldview of modern Indian secularist variety.

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So the task is cut out for the Hindus. Either give up your religious holidays or secularize them. To begin with, consider renaming Rakshabandhan as Sibling Day, Guru Purnima as Master’s Full Moon or something like that.

I hear some communist groups have already started celebrating Krishna Janmashtami in Kerala; that should ensure a gradual secularization of this festival. Good! Looks like things are already on the move to resolve at least one desi secularist dilemma.


Author’s note: This post is not meant to offend or hurt any sentiments. It is written in a spirit of sharing some honest observations and with an aim to generate some reflection on the part of the reader, particularly the modern Indian urbanite.

To see readers’ comments, click HERE for the previous version of this blog.
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