The Broken Idol: Agnostic Musings on Religion

This Dussehra marks the third anniversary of my writing career. Of course, I had started writing a few months before that, but it was mostly gibberish of sorts: uninitiated scribbles that were born during my weekend strolls in Delhi’s Khan Market. But it was hundreds of kilometres north of the capital, away from the green marble tabletops of Cafe Turtle that my first short story came to be.

It was titled ‘The Broken Idol’, after a maimed, compassionate Shiva statue that sat forgotten outside a cafe window by the Beas. Back then, I was an apprentice to my own stubbornness: not holding back a hair while I fired away at the blank page. Reading Bukowski and Baudelaire, I was caught in the great screaming storm that turns one deaf to one’s own voice. The result was a botched-up short story that was barely coherent. A few days ago I was pained to see my old friend gone: the Shiva idol who had blessed me that Dussehra afternoon with the much-needed audacity to question my faith.

Idols, surprisingly, haven’t always belonged to the religious history of this land. Our lessons in school history claim that the first sculptures that can be labelled Indian are those from the Indus Valley Civilisation. Whether or not they were of religious character is still uncertain, even as several seals and figurines hint at some early belief (perhaps proto-religious) that prevailed along the Indus at the time.

Our dear friend apparently makes a cameo amongst the indecipherable artefacts from the period: many zealots claim that there exists a parallel between Pashupati and the modern day Shiva, while several others claim them to be completely different deities. Which one of these ideas is true, we can’t tell; however what does interest me is the hunger for association that the human mind seeks with the spiritual.

Early Vedic texts aren't quite kind on our ash-smeared, serpent-adorned comrade, and a clear rift between the Vaishnavite and Shaivite ways is evident. Over the centuries, the Aryan faith (I say this because the definition of Hinduism remains blurred to this day. It comes across as a compound faith with a rich library of meandering scriptures rather than linear texts) has become more accommodative of our friend, and the evidence of this generosity can also be seen in the ways of the Kulu Dussehra. While it is by no means the kind of Dussehra celebration most of India is used to experiencing (as I shall expand on later), it marries the tribal ways with the more saffronised belief that the common Indian today is familiar with.

However, writing about faith is dangerous territory, and perhaps this exercise is made more perilous by the fact that one must be a stranger to belief to write about it critically. Just the way Camus opens his landmark novel, ‘The Stranger’ with unabashed dissociation, so must one divorce oneself from the subject that is to be explored. The writer, or rather the enquirer, must live outside their own life and prejudice, and thus be vulnerable to assault from the keepers of faith: both staunch and secular.

The hunger for association, I read this phrase with great indulgence. It essentially is what tethers us to belief, or perhaps to any communal idea. Festivities and events take on a mass character: social validation is a game of numbers after all. It doesn’t, therefore, come across as surprising that our history is full of dynasties who tried cementing contrasting beliefs in pursuit of communal harmony. The Gupta dynasty stands out in this category: segregation and consolidation (some historians also suggest tampering) of ancient texts was undertaken to bind the masses by means of cultural and religious association. Familial bonds were created between divine entities, bringing different sects under an umbrella of a common faith, which resembles what is now perceived as Hinduism. This is evident from the attempt to include Buddha and Mahavira in the extended list of Vishnu avatars. The political exploitation of this hunger time and again is indicative of the great power that it has over the human mind, and in turn, the masses. Rituals and festivals were created, and they drew their authority from scriptures and the ancient character of the faith. The Kulu Dussehra is a seven-day celebration. Every village in the valley brings out its deities and parades them upon their shoulders and hearts with much pomp and splendour. Each village god or goddess has its own band and brigade (often the roles being hereditary), and over three hundred and fifty deities (some more revered than others), gather to pay their respect to Lord Raghunath, equated with Lord Ram. Shiva plays a key role in the ceremonies, and he is represented by not just a singular deity, but a host of them: each one a different version of our ascetic comrade. One who had often been dismissed as uncouth and peripatetic by the early Aryans, now proudly accompanies Lord Raghunath’s temple car by his side during the Dussehra procession, while other village gods join in, each with definite roles assigned to them as the celebration unfolds. It is interesting to note that out of all the village deities (hundreds of them) in Kulu, two are devoid of any recorded history: one being the Shiva of the Bijleshvar Mahadev Temple, and the other being the goddess Sharvali of Shuru village (it is curious to observe that they are the idea of the Shiva-Shakti duo, often regarded as pre-Vedic in their conception). Every other deity was brought by people who migrated here from elsewhere (regional identities still reign strong over the average Kulluvi’s mind, and perhaps it can be determined from the detail that we call our part of the world as Kullu desh in the local dialect, addressing it as if it were a country of its own), since it was customary to carry one’s family numen and its effects while moving to a new area. Several temples came up in due course of these migrations, hence the running joke that one doesn’t make a turn on a Kulu road without crossing by a place of worship. Even Raghunath has a recorded history, and quite an adventurous one: the gold idol was smuggled on the behest of the then Raja of Kulu, in a cavity the smuggler had carved in his thigh to avoid getting caught. This valley is home to a thousand such legends, and often the versions differ depending on who’s recounting them.

Growing up here, I have often wondered about the different aspects of this great exercise: political, social and ideological. ‘The Broken Idol’ was an amateur attempt at voicing the irritation of someone who had grown disenchanted with these festivities, and it was then that I first stumbled upon the maimed Shiva idol at the cafe. It was holy and human, far removed from the shining godly effects that my people carried around. It represented to me a god who has been stripped of his divinity on account of his wounds: for what has been wounded can’t be holy anymore - it slips into the realm of all that is human. Perhaps it is for this reason that damaged idols and religious symbols aren’t qualified to be worshiped or prayed to. Vulnerability shuns the omnipotent idea of the deity, and suggests that they are indeed more real and palpable than what we think. What is to be worshipped mustn’t be touched.

The Pashupati seal is one of the many surviving artefacts that haven’t been completely deciphered, owing to our incomplete understanding of the Indus Valley script. The terracotta figure of the Mother Goddess and the bust of The Priest King, two of the more well known Harappan artefacts too have suffered damage at the hands of time. Perhaps it is for this reason that they belong under pince-nez scrutiny rather than to the consecratory dab of vermillion. They have served their purpose pretty well: they have fed the idea of the millennia old character (and glory) of Hinduism (subverting very conveniently the more natural idea of a belief mutating and developing, and often corrupting itself, over time).

Following the decay of Indus Valley, most history textbooks move on to what is known as the Vedic age. A surprising feature of this period is the lack of any major religious sculptures. Construction of temples were still an alien concept (the first signs of conventional temples wouldn’t come up until the reign of Chandragupta II, around 4th century CE), and mostly forces of nature were revered in spirit. These forces soon took on an anthropomorphic character, and their worship by means of chanting and oblation is documented.

Ancient India (more rightly the geographical region governed by the Aryans) was a land of ideological disquiet: several questions lay unanswered and unattended to in this fractured land. A spiritual void post the battles for blood and soil was felt, and it was filled by a ravenous hunger for explanations to illuminate all that was human and ethereal. The Aryans found themselves in a new land, one populated by very different people and beliefs. It doesn’t take much to imagine that under the skin of this change lay a current of doubt, which could only be resolved by rigorous speculation. One of the first thoughts of Indian philosophy was born in the Samkhya (or Sankhya) school (an atheist school of thought that regarded creation as the cosmic interaction between the Purusha and Prakriti: none of whom are equated to the idea of a god). More philosophical schools came up, some Vedic, and others Non-Vedic. A certain atheist school worthy of mention was the Charvak school of thought: rationally empirical and hedonistic in nature. Most texts by Charvak were , regrettably, destroyed by other philosophers who were threatened by his audacious rationale, and what we know about his philosophy is from other texts that were essentially composed to refute it. Thus began the age of scriptures and philosophy: whether they were perfect or not is a separate question, but it transformed this land into a melting pot of (often contrasting) inquiries.

Even here, as I sit pondering over the festivities of the Kulu Dussehra, I can’t help but think of the nature of several migrations that occurred to the valley. Multiple waves of migrants from the Punjab, Kashmir, Kangra, Jammu and other neighbouring areas introduced the Vedic religion in Kulu. The original inhabitants (Khush and the Rahu tribes amongst others) were eradicated, and faith was cemented around hybrid identities to create the form of religion we witness here today.

What I have come to see is that more than devotion, religion serves as an anchor for identity. This holds true for castes and sub-castes as well. Being born into a faith often means that one is born within certain walls. These walls vary in their nature for different people, but there always are walls. And they define what one is allowed to ingest, the gender and class one is supposed to socialise with, the sanctions on mourning and celebration (each with a set of diktats), and so on. The idea of the divine is often lost in ceremonial rites, and is confined to an unreal, unattainable realm. Ritual, hence, rules the streets.

It is a natural observation that more than anything, the society associates sanity with a firm rooted sense of the self. There is no room for deviants here: everyone must be someone in this great, oppressive hierarchy.

Perhaps it is terribly egotistic of me to assume that my opinion matters: I am no social scientist, and certainly no expert on human behaviour, not even qualified enough to call myself a second-hand psychologist; but I feel compelled to speak on the matter simply as a member of the ever-churning human race.

I belong to the same human race that is terrified by its own loneliness and seclusion, and I believe that all our philosophies are reflections in the art of escape. One particular philosophy that I have come to admire is Shankracharya’s Advait Vedanta, and I have often found it to be an elegant doctrine on the subject of identity. The Brahman (different from the priestly social class in the Hindu caste system) is the one unchanging reality that we are all ignorant reflections of. This absolute entity isn’t some god or something one strives to be - it is what we all are in our true uncorrupted existence. Shankaracharya goes on to elaborate the concept of reality and consciousness, and packages his findings in smooth, seemingly impregnable logic. It is one of those gifts to mankind that lies conveniently ignored in the wake of social life and practicality: two things that demand a more concrete idea of one’s self.

What in fact baffles me is the obvious conflict that colours Indian society - the unbridgeable chasm between wholistic self-awareness and actualisation (devoid of a binding social identity), and the blind submission to an alien, intangible divinity.

In the years that followed the Vedic age, sculpture re-appeared in the religious scene. It was felt that divine entities were far too intangible to be worshipped - a need was felt to manifest their form in bronze and clay yet again. Immaculate silhouettes were shaped in wax while ingots were hurled in the furnace: the idols had to be perfect. Even today, the ancient sculptures of Elephanta, the Chola figurines with their svelte aesthetics, the handsome Buddhas and Tirthankaras are revered as evidence of our religious history and art. Sculpture isn’t free from the impression of human identity either: gods often resembled the men who cast them. The Gandhara Buddhas have more Greco-Indian features than their Mathura counterparts, just as Jesus has been portrayed as a white man for centuries.

The broken idol, however, isn’t nearly as ancient yet. It’s plaster of Paris form is far from perfect: perhaps someone deeply spiritual had fashioned it in pure love rather than in reverence. It has thus, transcended this ideological contrast: in a world of worshipping and the worshipped, it has assumed a secular character. It has stepped away from the divine to the intimate, and had thus lost its reverence. To me, that maimed Shiva represents the dominion of spirituality in a world struggling and oppressed within rigid walls of blind tradition and dogma.

Ours is a land of contrasts and ironies. And by this, I intend to mention that India - the birthplace of no less than nine major schools of philosophy, the melting pot of spiritual and hedonistic inquiry, has incarcerated its innate tradition of curiosity. Our minds have given in to platitudes, and perhaps it is such general a lamentation that it need not be mentioned explicitly: it peppers the aftertaste of almost every human interaction one might have (most inconspicuously, that is).

However, convention and platitudes do make one’s job easier. It is easier to go to a place of worship than sitting in a dusty old library and reading philosophy. It is easier to confuse the tenets of Vedanta with doctrines of the unchangeable, absolute being that many a scripture rest their authority on. It is easier to be a part of the Dussehra procession rather than being a stranger to one’s faith and culture. Perhaps this behaviour, like most others, is shaped and encouraged in the first abscesses of blind tradition: the domestic household, where any disagreement with long-held ideals is regarded deviant.

Centuries hence, we haven’t come any further in our pursuit. For all we know, we have turned far more oblivious in our ways. A different battle is being fought each day: one to procure survival and understanding. I say procure in the wake of this age of commodification that has been extensively written about already. Again, our minds face a vacuum, the pang most readily dulled by the usual salt and oil of religion and hunger.

Amidst all this observation, the broken idol sits unfettered upon a plastic chair in the cafe yard: one of the cafe staff led me to it the other evening, and my friend greeted me with the same grey smile upon his flaking lips that he had had for all of my conscious eternity.

It is perhaps time to go home. The air is getting colder, soon the tandoor will be lit, and like all autumn evenings, this one will be filled with folk tales and lores about angry giants and conniving dwarfs with crooked noses and incredible limbs, while my friend will brave the autumn frost in the yard. He seems to have gotten over his much touted divinity, perhaps for his own good.

Arsch Sharma, 27, has been writing professionally for two years now. He has penned works of creative fiction and non-fiction, including opinion pieces, essays, short stories, poetry and novellas.