I was raised as an atheist by atheist parents who participated in/held poojas as a cultural phenomenon. We did the whole picking a Ganpati, hosting it, saying goodbye to it shebang till mummy went to the asylum. Then we didn’t have enough energy for pretense and frolic. We continued to not host him after she came back. We do enjoy the festivities though. We dress up, visit family, sing along to banal aartis, and don’t preach to deaf ears about misogynistic rituals like Karva Chauth and Teej. But that is the extent of our religion.

The other thing we do in name of spirituality is sing Bollywood songs for prayers. ‘Itni shati hume dena daata’ which to me is a song about gaining strength to make hope possible. It talks about not seeking revenge, not believing in non-truths, and asking for a good, even if short, life. Another one ‘humko maan ki shakti dena’-we sing without pausing, making it sound like an offshoot of the first song- which is about looking after yourself before taking care of others. This one, originally Jaya Bachchan sang in Guddi in front of an assembly of students. It asks us to forgive, not hold grudges, and stick with what is right. These, Mumma had picked up from the asylum. Now we sing it at home, not in front of the tiny temple, just in a room, the living room or kitchen, wherever we happen to be in the evening. These are the only things I imagined as prayers, sought for myself, growing up.

Now I understand religion as a doctrine to positively enforce community, keep the faith and wonder alive. The rituals and practices are reminders; because indoctrination of ideologies depends on constant reinforcement. In times of adversity, these feel like a crutch, giving a sense of control and a hint of hope. I remember making promises to the universe and my future self when papa was in the hospital. I make non-religious, meaningful (to myself) promises and rituals because we need to be mindful of what we put in our body-minds: clothing, food AND ideologies.

Here are some alternate rituals:

  • Verbal fasting: A day when we decide to only speak constructively. So now “you suck!” but “I was hurt when you said that because it made me feel like you do not care”. This day you give people heartfelt compliments.
  • A time during the day when we remind ourselves of the things we want to live by: I shall be gentle with myself, I shall be kinder to Mumma.
  • A walk, during which we pay attention to and feel grateful for nature.
  • A week when we practice vegetarianism/veganism.
  • Researching the state of Elephants, Snakes, Swans in the world and how to make it better (instead of adulating humanized animals.)

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