What does it mean to be a Hindu? Depends on who you ask. With over one billion Hindus, you are likely to get over one billion answers. And, in these times, many a heated debate.
Despite hosting a blog on Hinduism I have shied away from the present debate. Partly because I am averse to noise and the politics of religion but mostly because for me the answer to that question is not an academic one or one that I can articulate. It is simply an experience I grew up with.
Let me tell you about my maternal grandparents. They were special. Not just because they were incredibly loving, kind and generous grandparents ( every year for two months of summer they had twenty one grandchildren and their own eight children under one roof and not once did we see anything but joy for it), but because they were incredible people.
Nana, my grandfather owned a sawmill, Jiji, my grandmother was a housewife. He had finished his matriculation and she, although a prodigy, had left school after seventh grade. Neither needed a degree to prove just how bright they were. Five minutes in their presence and you knew. She was a genius with numbers and could recite several texts from memory, he was equally well read and well versed in various subjects including Ayurveda. But it is their deep, inherent wisdom that stands out for me even today. It was a wisdom that permeated every aspect of their lives.
Both were devout Hindus. She loved her Ram and Krishna; he was more of a Hanuman devotee. Every single day of their lives without fail she made her trip to the Ram temple in the early hours of the morning, her pet dog at her heels, while he visited the Hanuman temple morning and evening. Sometimes, some of us kids would go along but mostly we would wait for them to bring home the sweet prasad.
At night when we all lay on our mattresses and cool cotton sheets under the stars, my grandmother would tell us stories of the gods. To her, they were real. As real as if she had lived with them all her life and she knew each one personally, right down to their individual quirks. Ram she would say was the quiet one but Krishna, oh he was a handful. She would amuse us by their antics and amaze us by their heroics.
Her little temple at home was full of deities whom she bathed and dressed every day, his office wall was lined with photographs of various saints. She was big on customs and festivals; he was more drawn to the mystics. Even so, neither had time for superstition or blind faith of any kind. They were very distinct in their ways and fiercely independent in their views but similar in how they lived their lives; with a spirituality that was not bound by any custom or religion but enriched by it.
My grandfather regularly visited dargahs (tombs) of Muslim saints along with shrines of Hindu saints. Every year he joined in the Moharram procession carrying sweets made at home. My grandmother was very drawn to Jainism. So much so that when on her eightieth, which she announced was going to be her last birthday, she decided to give away her possessions, she gifted all her inheritance to a Jain monastery. Her jewellery she gave to her daughters, daughters-in-law, grand-daughters, and great granddaughters and all but two of her sarees went to her friends from the temple. Two weeks later she was diagnosed with a brain tumour and few months later she passed away, fully embracing whatever was next. No remorse, no regrets and no attachments. Eleven days later my grandfather passed away. He could not go on without her. They had been married for over sixty years and had lived in that town for about fifty of those. When hundreds gathered for the funeral no one was surprised.
What everyone remembers most about Nana and Jiji to this day is how their house was always open to guests, visitors, travellers, random strangers passing through town, the homeless and the poor. The house was perfectly positioned next to the bus stand and a stone’s throw away from the railway station, making it the first port of call for anyone coming into town. Some would come to say hello, others to ask for help. No one left empty handed. If nothing else, they at least got a cup of tea or a meal. There was always someone extra for lunch.
It was a house that had grown organically over the years, room after room added like train compartments with multiple doors that were never shut. Open to all. Much like their hearts.
One night as we all slept in the yard, a homeless woman came and sat by the rickety wooden gate. She wanted food. A particular kind of bread. Nana who was sleeping on a wooden bed by the gate woke up and asked one of my cousins to let Jiji know the woman was here. Jiji who was sleeping inside got up and cooked some fresh bread for her. I learned in the morning that this was quite a regular occurrence. The woman who was most likely from out of town (she spoke another language) had made a nearby temple her home. Clearly of unsound mind, she had no idea where her real home was, but she knew there was one place she could go to and ask for what her heart desired. When anyone asked Nana why he indulged her whims, he would say, ‘Well, she doesn’t understand but we do.’ Jiji would joke about it and say the woman was probably her sister-in-law from her last life.
My grandfather was always bringing home beggars and rough sleepers for meals regardless of caste or creed. My grandmother was happily feeding them. In the unbearably hot summer months whenever she made buttermilk, a luxury for some, she would send some for the priests at various temples. Everything was shared. And they were by no means wealthy people.
As the temperatures climbed and the canal dried up, they often had to buy water by the tanker. But no matter how short we were of water, the tank built for the cows was always full. My grandmother loved her cows, her dog, her cats. And they loved her.
My mum tells me even when the family had fallen on hard times, they always had some distant cousin or another staying with them so he or she could go to school in their town and get an education.
All us grandchildren found an education of sorts at that house. Lessons we will never forget. From little things like how to chop an onion the right way or the need to walk several miles to deliver a curry to a friend because it was her favourite dish. It was a hard walk, in the blazing sun for a city kid like me which Jiji realised to her dismay when we got back, and I crashed on the bed. She spent the next few hours massaging my legs apologising for putting me through that ordeal. If I go an extra mile today to do something for someone, it is because I learned very young that it was important.
Come to think of it, I even attended my very first spiritual gathering as a child with my grandmother. A renowned spiritual teacher was giving discourses in town and she took me along. I do not remember any of the talk, but I remember loving it. I had had my first taste of the idea of ‘spirituality’ that went beyond religion. No surprise then that here I am writing this blog.
Two years before her death, I was pregnant when I visited India and could not make the journey to see my grandparents. So Jiji, travelled eight long hours lying down on the rear seat of a car to see me. She had a bad back but was strong as ever. We talked of many things. I told her of my newfound spiritual teacher. While my parents did not understand or necessarily approve (too many self-proclaimed godmen had given gurus a bad name), she was pleased for me. She told me, that when all else falls away, I must hold on to my guru mantra. Not the guru mind you, the mantra. The eternal truth.
My grandparents were simple, wise folk who did not intellectualise their religion, God or faith. They just understood its essence and lived it with their big, open hearts.
I cling to that simplicity, that expansive experience of life, the world and what it means to be Hindu.