As a child, Ganesh was my favorite God. I wanted, then, to have a God in my life. Most children have no such desire because they are born into families with Gods. God and religion are passed on to them. But for me, a God, or rather an idol, was something to long for. Because we did not have any in our house.
So I would sneak Gods into my life. I would line up with neighbors in the monsoon drizzle to see the building-sized Ganesh installed at the town’s textile mill. I would marvel at his silky dhoti, his golden crown. I would practically smell the roses in his garland. Coming home, I would avoid sharing my adventures with my parents for fear of being forbidden to go again. Even at the age four or five, I knew that God did not exist. I was used to my father, Dada, pontificating about the evidence against the existence of God; I was accustomed to my mother, Aai’s, violation of the Vatasavitri fast other women observed every year to obtain the same husband for the next seven incarnations.
In an ultimate demonstration of subconscious sexism, I would resent only Aai’s transgressions, while admiring Dada’s modernity.
Still, I wanted all of God’s trappings. I wanted to make garlands for idols; I wanted to distribute sweets after prayers; I wanted the pomp and celebration and fun associated with religion.
Most of all, I wanted to belong.
So one year, at festival time, I persuaded Dada to get our own Ganesh. From then on, as Ganesh Festival approached every year, we would go to the market to purchase a colorful clay idol. We would install it in the middle room with much fanfare. Every year, I would discover that I was the only member of the family who was able to recite the Ganapati’s aarti, Sukhakarta Dukhakarta Vata Vignachi. Every year, I would laugh as Dada would stand in front of the Ganesh statue, an oil lamp in one hand and a prayer book in the other, stumbling over stanzas like Lambodar Pitaambar Phanivar vandana Saral Sond Vakratunda Trinayana. But I never wondered how, growing up in their orthodox families, Aai and Dada had avoided knowledge of the scriptures. I myself knew all the stories from the Mahabharata; at age eight, I had memorized the Ramaraksha stotra; I could even draw elaborate rice powder rangoli designs from memory. In middle school I would travel across the city to participate in competitions for recitation of chapters of the Bhagwadgita.
I did not feel an outsider then. I kept in check the feeling of alienation buried deep inside me, by participating. I danced the kathak at the Ganesh Festival; I took part in debates. I listened to lectures on Hindu philosophy. Sitting on the street among the crowds as a slow rain soaked me, I watched three-act plays and black and white films. On the last day of the festival, I persuaded Dada to join the neighborhood procession to immerse the idols into the Nag River. I learned to separate religion as a cultural phenomenon from religion as a dogma.
But then something happened. I drifted far away.
Did it happen when I was pressured into a traditional wedding ceremony? Did it occur because the wedding was for a marriage I did not believe in? Or were the seeds sown much earlier, as I watched my mother’s brilliant mind being ravaged by mental illness?
Whatever the reason, somewhere, a break happened. A childhood filled with celebration and joy turned into tragedy. I was consumed by a bleak sadness.
Later, during the late eighties, overcome by deep personal disappointments, I suffered a severe clinical depression. I had just returned to California from New Zealand; my grad school friends had drifted away. The only one who was left was a friend from my Hawaii days, the one who had introduced me to my second husband. At the peak of my crisis, she went to her church and asked the congregation to pray for me. Later, when she told me this, I cried.
Did the break happen then? Was it because no one had prayed to Ganesh for me?
Moved by my plight, my parents presented me with the only idol they possessed, a statue of Balaji, our family deity, during my visit. Religion had come to them late in life, and even then, only half-heartedly. I still have that statue in my dining room. It is not a religious symbol so much as a totem of my parents’ complex, separate histories as young single people living in Mumbai and discovering the world on their own terms. A dozen statues of Ganesh are also scattered around my house. Still, I cannot make myself believe in a God who allows so much suffering.
Gods do not demonstrate their love in that way, believers would say. Perhaps they are right. My African-American secretary once told me that the one thing she lived for was going to church every Sunday. I could not fathom her sentiment. I could not understand how a person, who lived alone in a crime-infested part of Richmond, whose grandson was in prison, who suffered from numerous health problems, could have so much love for God. “What has God done for you?” I wanted to ask. I still believe in Dada’s assertions that poverty, injustice, inequality in the world are all evidence against the existence of God.
Recently, an architect friend persuaded me to accompany her to the Livermore Temple. Once there, I only observed the chaos, the noise, the gaudy décor. The place failed to evoke any nostalgia or solace for me.
Yet, deep down somewhere, I envy those who can believe. I long for that childhood when I pined for idols, for that era when prayers and rituals were symbols of belonging, of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.
In those moments, an image comes back to me, of our next door neighbor, Kayande Master, presenting Dada with a framed picture of God Rama. “From today, you are going to start worshipping Gods,” he said. The day was Rama Navami. I was already studying physics at the university by then. Dada sent me to the shops to buy a book of prayers for Rama that day. Then he bathed, recited the mantras, and after a day-long fast, dined. I remember this vignette, not so much as a memory of my father discovering religion, but as a neighbor’s act of love. Dada was moved, I am convinced, not by a religious spirit, so much as by his desire to please his good neighbor, Kayande Master.
And regardless of faith or lack thereof, I miss that era when ritual meant arts and crafts, when sacrament was not angry but full of laughter, when religion was community, and community religion. Most of all, I miss being surrounded by believers who accepted non-believers.
Sarita Sarvate (www.saritasarvate.com) has published commentaries for New America Media, KQED FM, San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, and many nationwide publications.