Saturday, June 4, 2011

What Kind of a Devotee are You?

Reading time: ~ 15 (+/-) 5 minutes
One day when I was between the ages of 5-7, I woke up in the morning and got out of my bed. A special request took birth in me as I gave my customary morning namaskaram to a picture of a representative of the Almighty in our hall.
Swami, I spoke in my mind, head bowed, hands folded and eyes closed - every day I have been sincerely giving you my first look and namaskaram, just as I was told. Those are all many days, right? For the very first time today I am asking for something back.
Please let my mother not discover that I did not brush my teeth. Only for today, Sarena? (ok?), while shaking my S.Indian head.
Then I sashayed into the kitchen for my cup of warm milk, instead of brushing.

One look at me and my mother said, Eemiti? (What?) First go and brush and then come!
I was in shock. Inside me, something was shaken.
The idea that prayer and reward do not comprise a simple model of cause and effect took seed early in my psyche.

That was in the 70's, when lambrettas and dinosaurs roamed the uncluttered roads of idyllic Hyderabad. Open expanse meeting the lazy horizon was standard eye fare. Sweet grapes flooding the season green was assured. Thousands of birds nesting in the trees around Charminar factory inhaling second hand smoke and singing sympho-cacophonies was a daily sundown event.

In prayer requests, we do not ask for immediate tangibles. We do not say, please turn my car into a Jaguar. We pray in generalities - make me a better person, bestow good health upon my parents, help my friends in their time of trouble.
An extra step is - Please help me with my exams and I will do this in exchange (go on a pilgrimage, offer a donation etc). Often the idea behind this type of exchange proffered to the Almighty has a self-directed arm- sacrifice, for ego purification or charity, for overall good vibes and so on.
Aside from requests, prayer can be a anchoring time with a higher benevolent power viewed per personal belief. Prayer can channel the extrinsic power of the Almighty into the self and augment faith in self-help.

When I was growing up, a key feature during festival gatherings of families and friends was singing. A few women enthralled the audience with collections of devotional songs. One song had a special status among the Madhvas. At some point, many women got up on cue, maybe during harathi and sang “Bhagyada Lakshmi Baramma”. The Kannada was usually mauled by us Telugus. Our Kannada relatives tried to raise their voices almost as if reclaim an innate right to the song. Everybody sang and understandably so, since inviting an approachable Lakshmi was involved.

Devotional music can bring the mind closer to harmony and a higher sense of being and belonging. The combination of lyrics with the skill and mood of the artist or artists can be very effective in activating parts of our mind synonymous with serenity, surrender or splendor.

Last year, we had an extended stay in Secunderabad. The festival Vinayaka Chavithi coincided with our visit. The service apartment we rented was housed in a regular complex so we also had the fortune of feeling the flavor of life there. Much has changed in the twin cities over time; one is in the scale of festivities surrounding this very popular festival.
The apartment complex came alive with puja rituals, food, cultural and community activities that cut across ages and genders. There were some side effects too- music past 1 AM, already bottle necked traffic having to deal with re-routing, safety and environmental hazards during and after immersion of the idols.

Rituals can serve as the means for a cherished idea or a significant incident to have symbolic recreation in a different time line. Rituals can give form and body to the means of communication with a higher power. They can bring beauty, artistry, glory and pomp of varying degree to the occasion. Preparing, enjoying and sharing of food can heighten the pleasure and enjoyment of any event or occasion. The cultural and communal sharing can forge an identity within the community and society.
Danger looms when the bond is broken between the uplifting idea and ritual, resulting in the ritual(s) assuming a life of their own, becoming a force of habit without context or even worse- manipulated to suit group agendas.

In summary, rituals symbolize cherished ideas, the music enhances the mood and prayer offers core connection. While considerable variations exist within the set of (ritual, music and prayer) across sects and religions, all in all, we base our worship within this framework. Worship in this kind of framework seems to have evolved over a long period of time. One can develop affinity for one aspect of worship over another. Having belief seems to be key; even an incense or candle from a holy place can have significant meaning for the faithful while coming across as a mere object for another not invested in the faith.

This post is really about some questions about the framework-    A. Is the framework successful? B. Is it necessary? C. What happens outside of this framework?

         A. Is the framework successful?
To discuss success we have to define the vaunted goal. I have comfort in description of the goal as:
A devotee or worshiper, using the framework of (ritual, music, prayer) seeks to strengthen his devotional feeling directed towards a higher power, for succor and the eventual well being of his spiritual and material mind-body (and for all whom he cares about).
My opinion falls on the side that the framework is reasonably successful in achieving its goal.

         B. Is the framework necessary?
Far too often we confuse the framework, which comprises the acts of devotion with the feeling of devotion. It helps to take a minute and define devotion or devotional feeling all by itself: getting the mind above the daily grind into a space of tranquility from wherein one can emerge with peace and a trimmed ego. Both the quality and duration of this feeling are variable.
It is possible for one to be involved in the detailed acts of devotion but not experience the actual transcending feeling of devotion. We forget that it is possible to step outside the framework and achieve the same. Or worse, we view individuals outside the framework with suspicion.
Then there is the other side: networks of people can be wholeheartedly committed to following the acts of devotion, making a business of worship. The framework of worship can become an end in itself while equating and continuously reinforcing the act with the actual.

         C. What happens outside of this framework?
What does outside mean?
a. A person does not believe in the framework of worship, even (0, 0, 1) for (ritual, music, prayer) and chooses alternate methods, paired with
     a.1. She does not believe in the goal: personal (mind/body/afterlife) high, as an end point of devotion.
     a.2. He does not believe in a higher power.
In C.a., the person is without a framework of worship. It is difficult to envision someone who goes through this unless (s)he also believes in C.a.1 or/and C.a.2.
Also, being outside the framework is much easier now than in earlier times. Social life is possible without hassles. Also being moneyed can remove one far away from the need to worship or even needing it except in life emergencies.

C.a.1. I find this interesting. If not personal well being what else can be an endpoint? Devotion can be an end in itself ?
Let us catch-up. This C.a.1 type individual does not want the framework, does not believe in a goal for Self, may or may not choose to believe in God.

It is getting complex, isn't it? Stay with me, I see light at the end of the tunnel....

Remember, the framework gives us tools to achieve devotion; ritual, music and prayer are acts of devotion but not the thing itself. One can achieve devotion outside of the acts of devotion by other creative/focused methods. The devotion in turn can be to God for well being or for a cherished personal project or exist with no directional purpose or motive.
Devotion towards God, a cause or a project is understandable. But non-directional? It helps to redefine devotion ever so slightly differently: a feeling of clarity and intrinsic self-worth along with a healthy ego to hold those in place. This attitude may not be directed towards an outcome.

C.a.2. Is the easiest to understand. Since this person does not believe in a higher power, the need for worship or a framework does not arise. He needs to use his own ingenuity to find people and a community to plug into. And more importantly, he needs to nurture his mindfulness on his own strength. This surprisingly may be straightforward since confusing signals are dampened. But only as long as the person is not a vigilant, either on the defensive or offensive.
Or he may not be the type to wear his allegiance on his sleeve. He may go along with family without actual active personal belief or participation. Either way, C.a.2 people are without exception quite resourceful and generally more than capable of hopscotching about the above pathways.

Ayyo, why the rigmarole, you are entitled to ask, if you got this far.
Last year I was given well meaning suggestions from my family for utilizing devotion as a means for finding a solution to an intractable issue. The above thread is an attempt to tell myself where I stand.
And, my car isn't a Jaguar.

Here is a Table with all the possibilities. F = Framework, D = Devotion, G= God. When F = Yes, it means that a person uses any or all parts of the framework of worship.  When D = Yes, it means the person consciously tries to develop an attitude of being centered.  When G = Yes, it means a person believes in God as the highest power.
The four rows where G = No, can qualify as atheism. The table shows different colors therein.

Believes in F, has D and faith in G. Probably encompasses >95% of our populace
Believes in F, has D but has no faith
Believes in F only (say, music or a small prayer)
Follows own methods of D towards faith
Nurtures D by itself
We know where you live!


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