My God Hasn't Died Young
By Madhu Jain
Most days, Amit Khosla, 25, a shy web designer, works late into the night. On such nights he can't visit the Shirdi Sai Baba temple, 8 km away from his Connaught Place office in Delhi. But that doesn't worry this nouveau devotee of two years. His temple is where he is: his computer screen. And www.saibaba.org hooks him on to other devotees in cyberspace (50 websites to date) with whom he can talk about Sai Baba and even exchange photographs of him: Khosla's even filed photographs and paintings he's done of Sai Baba in his directory folder. And he intends to start another website with a chat room for fellow devotees.
Khosla, however, is not one of those computer nerds forever cruising virtual reality. Back on terra firma, and on nights when it's too late to go to the Shirdi Sai Baba temple, he goes close-by to Gurdwara Bangla Sahib or the Kali ka Mandir. And, some evenings when he feels like it, to Jama Masjid. "I don't see a difference. You can write in Hindi or in English -- the characters may be physically different but ultimately what you write means the same," he says.
There are many like Khosla, perhaps not as eclectic but also on a spiritual quest -- or in search of gods, old or new. The number in his age group is increasing exponentially. There is now a resurgence of religion among the youth in India. When once not too long ago the gods died young, usually sent packing by Marx or indifference, they now appear to be staying on -- even getting born again -- for the young and the restless. Godhead.com may be for the privileged few with access to the highways of cyberspace, but for the rest of young India there's an ever-expanding pantheon of gods, goddesses, godmen and gurus. A lengthening list of holy places, rituals and rites. A sudden abundance of festivals. Zeal is back in religion and it is becoming contagious among the youth.
An india today survey in the country's five metropolises of people between the ages of 16 and 30, showed that religion is back in vogue. As much as 94 per cent of the people surveyed said they believed in God. A substantial majority (86 per cent) categorised themselves as very religious. Rituals, pujas and pilgrimages are now the in thing. Among Hindus, one out of two said they had performed a ritualistic puja at home this year apart from paying regular visits to temples and an occasional pilgrimage. Among Muslims, a third of them performed namaz five times a day. And another third at least once. And in all, three-quarters of the people surveyed felt that religion had become an essential part of their lives (see charts).
The dramatic return to faith is in the air almost everywhere: audio cassettes of devotional songs inundate the market. Rhythm House, Mumbai's leading retail store, has over 800 such titles and has increased its sales fourfold over the past five years. Titles like Nirvana and Shiva Chants are often out of stock. And you can hear the bhajans and kirtans floating out of the cars of young executives as they drive to work. "I like to hear bhajans in the morning on my way to office because it soothes my nerves and prepares me for all the hassles the day has in store for me," says Rajan Malik, 30, who works in the treasury of a bank.
If it's Tuesday, it's the main Hanuman Mandir in Delhi: the serpentine line of the faithful would be over a kilometre long if stretched out, nearly 90 per cent of them young men and women in their 20s. On Fridays, it is impossible to drive down the Bhulabhai Desai Road in Mumbai on which the Mahalakshmi mandir stands: the road is taken over by young devotees -- both yuppie Indians and traditional young Indians wait hours to get in, the cellulars switched off and tucked into belts, chunnis placed hastily over their heads by the jeans-clad women. For many it is every day of the week in gurdwaras, mosques and temples. Sundays see a growing queue of youngsters heading for church. In Bangalore, Vikram Anandan, 23, a final year MBBs student, not only goes to church regularly but spends at least half an hour every day on prayer and meditation. He says, "Religion is believing in a control. It is much easier knowing that you are not alone in such turbulent times."
In Delhi, Father Ignatius Mascarenhas, rector of Pratiksha, the diocesan theologate where young men study theology for the last four years before they become priests, observes an increasing number of prayer groups sprouting all over the city. More young people are conducting prayer meetings themselves, whereas about three years ago such meetings would have been conducted by priests and nuns. "There's a resurgence of spirituality. The youth are beginning to lose their moorings. It's like they're feeling a blast in their lives," observes Father Mascarenhas. "So a search is now on for something more permanent, a certain stability. In that search, they are turning to spiritualism and things like meditation and yoga."
Questing and adventurous, they are also going where Indians once feared to tread: Iskcon temples of the Hare Rama Hare Krishna movement. Just a few years ago, it was a rare Indian face which could be spotted among the pale hordes of the faithful in these rapidly proliferating temples. Today, the mammoth Iskcon temple in Mumbai is full of young Indians who have signed up as members; so is the one in Delhi. The sublime Bahai Temple in the capital attracts a growing number of young men and women who come to pray and meditate. Like Jaya Nair, 25, who has come to Delhi from Pune to spend a year here as a volunteer before she goes on to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, US, for a postgraduate degree in public health. "A large percentage of people coming here are young and many of them come because they are disillusioned or don't know what they want from life," she explains. For many the journey is away from idols and temples to books, specially these DIY (Do It Yourself) kind of books. Simply written and elegantly produced, these books give you ancient Indian wisdom in digestible dosages and attractive packages. More Vedas and Upanishads and less Ram Charit Manas. More Hatha yoga, Pranic healing, Buddhist chants and Vipasana than offerings to traditional gods.
Home is obviously then no longer the place where they can find answers to questions which bother them, or the peace of mind they seek. And increasingly, the beliefs of the fathers -- and mothers -- are not being visited upon the sons and daughters. Parents are no longer role models, hence the cults they follow are not good enough. In the India Today survey almost half of the respondents said that religion offers the best solace today to the problems they face. And a third said they took to religion because of a general insecurity. However, as many as 48 per cent felt they were less religious than their parents. "The link between parents and children has become much weaker," explains Deepankar Gupta, sociologist at Jawaharlal Nehru University. "And since all kinds of roles are being negotiated, so are morals. Now there is an element of choice. Morality also becomes a matter of choice." So, if the fathers are going the Arya Samaj way, the children go the other direction, in search of idols and manifest gods and goddesses. Or as Gupta adds succinctly: "A young person may well say, 'l don't like the lives my parents lead, so I will find my own God'."
As did Priyanka, an intense and intelligent 20-year-old student in Jadavpur University in Calcutta. Her mother Kanika Banerjee, 49, dabbled in Naxalism in the '70s and can't remember when she last went to a temple. Her husband Tapan, a businessman, is almost indifferent to religion. But Priyanka has been deeply religious for the past two years, fasts frequently and intends to visit all major Hindu pilgrim spots. "I realised the existence of God suddenly, inexplicably. There must be a spirit coordinating nature, it's all so impossible to happen on its own." Religion, she reiterates, gives her strength.
The gods keep proliferating. And many begin to wear their religious identities on their sleeves. Like the Non-Resident Indians who proudly sport Om T-shirts, calling themselves Om boys in North America, and lap up bhajans and kirtans. Fads and fashions always travel back to the homeland. For Harinder Singh Bhogal, 31, it's been a complete metamorphosis. Until December last year, he was a high-flying exporter managing his family's Rs 35-crore cycle parts business in Ludhiana. Clean-shaven, with a French beard, Bhogal rarely went to the prayer room in his home. His family members are devout Sikhs. Today, he wears a white turban, has a flowing beard and has become a teetotaller and a vegetarian. "With so much comfort and such a hi-fi lifestyle, I never felt secure and satisfied. Suddenly, religion and meditation helped me fill that void." So, while Bhogal's business friends feel worried about recession, he's calm. God keeps recession at bay for him: "My faith in God and meditation raise my capacity and efficiency."
Many sociologists believe that spurring the return to faith are problems of identity which crop up more frequently in the turbulent and changing times, specially during rapid urbanisation when old standards and morals take a beating. The wages of progress in fast forward. Religion and old practices come back to the front burner when threatened and this decade has seen more than its share of communal violence. Iqbal Masud, former government servant and perceptive social commentator who conducts classes on Arabic and Islamic studies, thinks that the middle- and lower-middle class Indian Muslim youth are "living in a siege mentality". "They are more conservative than ever. With more education spread among girls, they are becoming more revivalist. Education is used to push the cause of radical Islam."
Nor does education have answers which the youth are looking for today. Therapist Rani Raote believes that this generation has been taught to ask questions which neither their parents nor their teachers can provide. "They themselves are confused ... often too esoteric or aloof," says Raote, adding, "So it's easy for the younger generation to get caught in rituals for immediate relief since they can't depend on anything from their family, institutions or any social system." Adds Rita Mukherjee, a Delhi schoolteacher, "There's a wild fire of need. They have no role models. Most of them hate their parents. They also need a place to cry." Mukherjee, who's also an adherent of the Rama Krishna Mission, always carries little booklets of the mission which many of her students snap up eagerly.
God, for most of the new faithfuls, is also just a very old wishing well. Religion is a short cut to what they want in life: good jobs, good spouses, good money. Religion is a wand to banish the fear and sense of hopelessness and loneliness besieging many of today's youth. But many who have got it all now wonder if this is all. A question troubles many of them: how do you reconcile the materialism of today with spirituality? Can you have both? How do you grapple with money, power, corruption, technology and an inner quest? These questions also bothered Ameeta Mehra, 32, who went to the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad and now runs her father's stud farm on the outskirts of Delhi. Her parents had no gods, the house no rituals. "I had everything going for me, had enjoyed everything in the world. But there was a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction,'' says Mehra. In 1996, she started the Gnostic Centre for Growth with three friends. They hold workshops and seminars for college students. A question students inevitably ask them: "How do we deal with the world around us and not in the roguish way?" Some of the youth, she adds, are "fed up with cynicism and search for a sense of the sacred and sanctity. They feel funny when they switch on the television and see all these guys running after things."
And so today's youth can mix 'n' match religions: Zen goes well with Christianity. So does Vipasana with Vedanta. As the borders between different religions become porous, the crossings multiply and rigidities dissolve. Nafisa Hussain, an 18-year-old Muslim student, finds peace when she walks into a chapel. "I feel very comfortable there. There may be opposition from my tribe but I really couldn't care less." Carol Briganza, 19, a Catholic, prays to Hindu gods: "I prefer to address somebody when I pray. I utter He Ram or He Krishna, I chant the Gayatri mantra. I read the Gita." B. Krishnan, a college student in north Mumbai, smears sacred ash on his forehead but is equally comfortable in a church, mosque or a temple, even a disco: "I easily get into a trance when I dance to techno music." Life is a smorgasbord of choices for young people like 18-year-old Shalini, "Thursday is Shirdi temple, Saturday is disco temple."
Life is hard enough for today's youth: surreal competition, looming unemployment and uncorked materialism where less is never more. Many, according to Makarand Paranjape, philosopher and cultural historian who teaches at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, are looking for a feel-good spirituality that steers clear of the usual renunciation and self-abnegation. Specially for the upper classes. "Spirituality is made this-worldly, and not other-wordly. All this makes it attractive for the yuppie class and the Me generation. For the upper classes, it's not just wealth but well-being,'' adds Paranjape. Hence, the kind of satsangs like the Sudharshan where you can let go with a modern sense of relish, kirtans which are like rock music, some sung to the tunes of the latest film songs, the outbursts of uninhibited dancing at Iskcon or at the Osho ashram in Pune, which draws many more young Indians than before.
No wonder it's the age of the user-friendly gods. Abhishek Goswami, whose father heads the Radha Raman temple in Vrindavan -- he's the heir to the gaddi -- says that Ramanand Sagar's electronic epics (Ramayana and Sri Krishna) have made the gods more fun and accessible. Says Goswami, 24, graduate of a commerce college in Ahmedabad, with a slight American twang: "These gods are lively. Sagar made Hanuman livelier, setting Lanka on fire and laughing." Goswami himself is proof that the new generation needs different types of gurus: he has adapted his discourse for the young and speaks to them in their language. "It is not enough to just quote shlokas as the mahagurus sitting high on their gaddis do. You have to explain things."
Meanwhile, back in cyberspace, more gods have found their abodes. Young Netizens are beginning to sign off with their favourite gods: the URL (uniform resource locators, or website addresses which you put at the bottom of the mail) is likely to be a website of Ganesh or Sai Baba. The latest entrant: the Attukal Bhagavathi temple in Thiruvananthapuram is the first temple in Kerala to have its own website. Click on it and you can find out all you want to know about this temple dedicated to the goddess Kannagi. Click on the Vaishno Devi website and you can hear bhajans and kirtans, click on Sai Baba's website which emanates from Mexico, and you can even order the sacred ash.
The gods and science are in a holy alliance.
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