It was twilight, that magical time between day and night, when she arrived at the gates of the Jalakandeshwar temple in Vellore, Tamil Nadu. Though it was a summer day in May, the gentle breeze going around made the heat bearable.
She stood diffidently at the entrance, looking around and wishing she were elsewhere — maybe exploring the Fort within which the temple was located… She didn’t really believe in God or rituals and found temples to be noisy, dirty places. But she had promised her father that she would visit the temple while in Vellore, so there she was.
She entered the temple complex hesitantly and looked around. To her surprise, the temple wasn’t overly crowded and there was a pleasant buzz in the air. While some devotees were offering prayers at the various shrines, many others were sitting around talking, socialising, relaxing and presumably waiting for the evening aarti to begin.
As she was wondering which way to head, the faint strains of music wafted her way and decided to follow the sound. It led her to an old man sitting on the ground outside a small shrine with a shruti box and singing Rama nannu, a Tyagaraja kriti. The old man had a beautiful voice, full of devotion and passion, and she immediately entranced. She sat down near the old man to listen to him and was soon caught up in the emotions of the song, which was about the all-pervading nature of God (Rama) and His existence in every living being.
When the old man finished singing, she realised that her cheeks were wet. As she wiped her face with her dupatta, she heard a voice whispering to her:
You are such a fake.
I’m not, she whispered back fiercely.
Still in denial? Enjoy it while it lasts, the voice mocked.
She tried to ignore the voice and concentrate on the song the old man was singing instead— another Tyagaraja kriti, Vandanamu Raghunandana. But her mind wandered to the time, earlier that year, when she had first been accused of being a fake.
A music concert had just ended with a rousing bhajan leaving her emotional and moist eyed. Her friend Ayesha, who was attending the concert with her, passed her a handkerchief and remarked rather thoughtfully:
You are such a fake.
She stopped wiping her eyes and said, “Whaaaat?”
You always dissolve into tears at music concerts, and …
Music is an emotional thing for me, and I’ve told you that before !
I know that, genius. And if you had not interrupted me I would have completed what I wanted to say. You get emotional only around sacred music, never secular music. Why does sacred music affect someone who calls herself an atheist?
All music makes me emotional, she replied indignantly. Sacred, secular, anything. And I am not an atheist; I just don’t believe in the idea of God!
Ayesha looked pointedly at her and said: I repeat, you are a fake. Listen to what you are saying and think about it. Reflect on it.
She shut up, but Ayesha’s words had made her uncomfortable. Over the next few days and weeks, she tried to forget what Ayesha had said, but couldn’t. Instead, it brought to fore her struggle with faith and memories associated with it.
Of going to school hungry because her paternal grandparents had not finished their puja.
Of meaningless rituals and the money spent on them.
Of being called impertinent by the said grandparents for asking questions on rituals.
Of frustration with her questions on faith and religion going unanswered.
Of being secretly envious of her mother’s simple and unquestioning faith in God.
Of her mother telling her about the necessity of faith in the divine.
Of her mother telling her to convert or follow any religion she would feel comfortable with
Of confusion, diffidence, anger and ensuing rejection of faith in God.
In ordinary circumstances, this rejection of faith in God would have worked and perhaps grown. But she hadn’t accounted for a very important part of her life — music. It was something she had grown up with, and immersed herself in… it was a part of her. She was passionate about music and though she tried, she couldn’t distance herself or reject music the way she rejected religion. So she continued immersing herself in music, but pushing away the emotions and connections with faith that it inevitably brought about. Rather successfully, she thought.
That is, till Ayesha called me a fake.
Yes, dear reader, the shift from the third to the first person in the previous sentence wasn’t a mistake. It was intentional for, as some of you may have guessed, this is my story, my journey and my struggle with faith.
If Ayesha’s remark forced me to acknowledge how superficial my rejection of faith was, the experience at Vellore with the temple singer was the catalyst to understand, really understand what faith and belief was. This was in 1997 and the years leading up to present day have been ones of, sometimes painful, self-realisation.
That blind rejection is as dangerous as blind acceptance
That answers don’t just come; one has to seek them.
That faith for me is not about puja, rituals and saying prayers mechanically.
That faith for me is about music and I connect with the divine only through music.
It has been almost 20 years since that day at the temple and I still seek, question, reflect, ask, engage, but don’t reject outright. As Swami Vivekananda said:
You have to grow from the inside out. None can teach you, none can make you spiritual. There is no other teacher but your own soul.