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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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,
cling to that simplicity, that expansive experience of life, the world and what
it means to be Hindu.