Atheist anxieties

ROUGH DRAFT 1

When I was eight, I would write down my prayers on a little piece of paper and stick them in a potted plant. I imagined that that the things I prayed for would spout up through the dirt and come true. I was a spiritual third-grader.

So, when I was 26 and in the middle of a breakdown I turned back to spirituality and religion. Sort of.
I was newly- married and my uncle gifted us a gold, ornately framed painting of the goddess Lakshmi, and Lord(s) Murugan and Ganesh. After spending most of my teenage years and early twenties as an atheist, I wanted to see if spirituality could help my anxiety.

Traditionally, religious shrines are built in a dedicated room in the house. However, in the western architecture style of 2-bedrooms and one-and half bath, the shrines are housed on the second top shelf of the linen closet and attended to every morning. Hindus believe that the living presence of the deity has been ritually infused in the painted image. This is supposed to help establish a connection with the divine. But, it only made me more anxious.

Hindu iconography is an exacting art. The design process of the sacred images is meticulously spelt out in canonical Hindu texts. The Shilpa Shastras, similar to a brand style manual, outline the shape, posture, gestures, dimensions, material and processes of creating the image of a deity.  Before Josef Müller-Brockmann pioneered his grid system, Hindu seers had created their own version. Every anatomical feature and posture, from the length of a fingernail to the curve of an eyebrow was measured in the unit of “tala” and arranged in elaborate gridded images.  Each deity also had prescribed hand gestures, poses and objects that the artist could include in the painting or sculpture.

The precise nature of Hindu worship made me nervous. I would worry that I wasn’t attending to the gods properly. I gave them filtered water. Never tap. I would prepare platters of fresh fruit weekly, even though this is generally only done on special occasions. And I worried constantly that the linen closet was too close to the bathroom. Instead of devotion, I focused on the aesthetic.

These past few months, the gold-framed picture has been stored in our bedroom because of renovations in the living room and linen closet. The living presence of the gods slightly muted. In the next few weeks the renovation will be complete. But, I’ll be returning the responsibility of the gods to my uncle and picking up a potted plant.

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FINAL STORY

When I was eight, I would write down my prayers on a little piece of paper and stick them in a potted plant. I imagined that that the things I prayed for would spout up through the dirt and come true. I was born Hindu, but my parents were laissez-faire card-carrying members of the faith and I remember getting very few answers to my big-picture questions. To them religion was about strict tradition and rituals, not philosophy. I practiced my made-up religious ritual until I was twelve and my family moved homes. I left the plant and religion mostly behind.

For 14 years I was an arm-chair atheist. I would quote Karl Marx’s, “religion is the opiate of the masses” in debates and dog-eared books by Dawkins. But in any crisis, before a test, during a break up, I would recite Hindu mantras under my breath and listen to bhajans. At 26, and in the middle of a meltdown I set up a Hindu shrine. My uncle gave me an ornately framed painting of the goddess Lakshmi, and Lords Murugan and Ganesh, the elephant god and my mother taught me the prayer rituals.

Traditionally, religious shrines are built in a dedicated room in the house. However, in the western architecture style of 2-bedrooms and one-and half bath, the shrines are housed on the second top shelf of the linen closet and attended to every morning. Hindus believe that the living presence of the deity has been ritually infused in the painted image and this helps the user establish a closer connection with god.

Similar to the rituals, the art of making Hindu icons and images is methodically spelt out in canonical Hindu texts. The Shilpa Shastras, similar to a brand style manual, outline the shape, posture, gestures, dimensions, material and processes of creating the image of a deity.  Before Josef Müller-Brockmann pioneered his grid system, Hindu seers had created their own version. Every anatomical feature and posture, from the length of a fingernail to the curve of an eyebrow was measured in the unit of “tala” and arranged in elaborate gridded images.  Each deity also has a list of hand gestures, poses and objects that the artist can include in the painting or sculpture.

However, the exacting nature of Hindu worship made me nervous. I would worry that I wasn’t attending to the gods properly. I gave them filtered water. Never tap. I would prepare platters of fresh fruit weekly, even though this is generally only done on special occasions. And I worried constantly that the linen closet was too close to the bathroom. Instead of devotion, I focused on the aesthetic. The big picture of finding peace got lost in the details.

I put the gods away during a recent renovation and with their presence muted; I remembered my plant on the window-sill and the artless philosophy I practiced; prayers could come true simply by being nurtured and given the time to grow. They don't need big dramatic gestures.

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