The Festive Conundrum

Festivals always make me pensive. I think a lot of it has to do with the time I first started on my road to atheism, when festivals meant conflict. Yes, I know atheism is not incompatible with festivities. In fact, if one thinks dispassionately, festivities have less to do with religion and more to do with society. But in a society that is predominantly, and overtly religious, it’s hard to disassociate festivities from religion — even the “theological” part of religion, of untenable beliefs, and anachronistic rituals.  

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In a sense, all social customs, overtly religious or not, are potentially anachronistic, because they are all rooted in specifics that either have, or could, change with time. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig (or was that in Lila?) has a very interesting take on this. He introduces a static vs dynamic “quality” differentiation (while refusing to define quality, but that’s another matter). Static quality is all social customs, beliefs, with their inherent “stickiness”. This comes from early initiation, and unquestioned obedience (okay he may not have said it, as it’s been years since I read it, but …) This static quality is really what makes society society. Because in its absence, there is no continuity, no sense of “belonging”, no common identity. One can’t identify with a constant flux. You need static quality to survive as a group. Dynamic quality on the other hand, is by definition, threatening this very stability. But without dynamic quality, you cannot adapt to changing situations. It’s like there is no “cultural evolution”. So memes are like static quality, and mutations are dynamic quality, one can say.

Back to the “conflict”, then, as an atheist, one is fundamentally disconnected to the religious rituals, for them to make any sense — especially for oneself. And yet, these rituals seem to bind people around you into a quasi-happy group. I mean, random people seem to be more gracious to each other during festivals. But to perform a ritual without identifying with it seems like a cop out, especially in the early days of atheism, when one still hasn’t acquired the escape velocity, and is likely to be mindful of being pulled back. Not participating in a ritual is like breaking a social contract. Suddenly you’re rejecting that communal (in the social, not religious, much maligned sense) experience, that so many around you seem to share. And depending upon the level of their involvement, they get hurt, angered, dejected, frustrated … The very same people, who are your world up to that point.

The thing with any conversion (and renunciation of religious belief is one) is that the recently converted are more zealous about their newly found faith (or lack of it). And so, it’s sometimes difficult to see, in that phase, that those people around you, who are actually participating in the religious rituals aren’t necessarily believing in them any more than as a long standing communal activity — like a tea club. It’s the ritual that matters — participating in the ritual, with others — not what it was intended to be, once. And in a sense, what is anachronistic, is what one thinks people following it think of it.

Years later, as I’m much far more settled in my lack of belief, and as I raise a child of my own who, by all the leading indicators, is getting prepared to tread on a similar road, the issue of rituals takes on new dimensions. As we enter an era where life is turning more cosmopolitan, multi-religious, and multicultural, the “communal” has its different dimensions as well. But there are still the traditional groups — especially in Indian context where lot of families are still predominantly non-cosmopolitan, uni-cultural, uni-religious — and their sense of belonging, and identity, that’s on offer as a default “first” club. And like it or not, it’s a heritage that is for the taking, for the next generation. And which means, by refusing to participate in the shared rituals, one is risking estranging this next generation from those identities. It’s not that there is anything inherently wrong with that estrangement, but ideally, that should be their choice to make. And so the conflict continues.

So what exactly do festivals mean to me, now?

[To Be Continued]

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