On most days the puja room in my house is a locked door. I trip past it on my way to work, trudge past it on my way to bed. Ignore it most weekends through the clinks of wine glasses.
But today is different.
I am coping with the death of a 6-year-old neighbor; I am grieving the loss of a childhood acquaintance. I am dreading a surgery on my dearest friend. Illness and death: a mirror to my mortality. A message that my clichéd haven of children, husband, and a big, warm house is tenuous; so very transitory!
I have looked in this mirror before. One parent, uncles, grandmother … many losses seemingly washed away by exuberant youthful memories. My first kiss, the first ride on my Honda, my first paycheck, my firstborn …
And yet, yet—when I sat down to meditate this morning, the tears that rolled were not for my friend. They were for me. For all the people I lost. When I closed my eyes and chanted, I prayed most desperately for myself above all else. As I sat in silence looking at the peaceful smile on Buddha’s face, I begged for my sanity above anything else.And perhaps, that’s what a prayer is all about. It’s about a rock that you sit tight on when the seas start churning. No matter how far out you have swum, when that perfect storm whips up, you are going to swim right back to it.
I was fascinated when I read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. The book raises many questions on the existence of a supreme external being, especially when revered through orthodox channels of prayer and religion. It sparked many a discussions in our living room, too. Should we believe in God? Is the act of praying important? Is a physical manifestation of our spirituality necessary?
Spurred by doubt and blinded by the bustle of daily chores it was just easier to let go. To drop the evening meditations. To spurn the morning salutations. To start believing in my invincibility.
Did I let go of something important? Did I lose something precious?
This morning, in this searing moment of pain, the answer is a crystal clear YES.
(Displaying my Bollywood roots) I am reminded of a scene in Abhimaan. The hero (Amitabh) asks the leading lady (Jaya) if she believes in God. I recall her answer “Babuji kehete hain behes mein kuch nahi rakhaa.Vishwaas hi sab kuch hai.” (My father says nothing is found in arguments. Faith is everything). There is a certain truth to these words. And it comes shining through in moments when we lose our ability to be logical!
We are wired to look for God when we land in trouble. It’s an instinct as primal as a child hiding behind its mother for protection. But very few of us are evolved enough to find this comfort and strength from abstract spirituality alone. We understand life through our five senses. And that exactly is how we should also understand death and seek comfort in our conflicted moments. To simply be good and spiritual is not enough when the mind is reeling. We need to breathe in the fragrance of an incense stick, hear the chime of the arati bell, see the regal countenance of a merciful God, feel the stickiness of prasaad on our fingers, taste the cooling assurance of tulasi water … and then, slowly, our senses soak in some perspective. We get a sense of sharing and community; human empathy and superhuman love reach us in ways we can finally understand.
The simplest analogy I can draw is that just as vitamin D is needed to absorb calcium, so is the act of praying to absorb God.
So, just as I teach my children table manners and find them piano teachers, I must also teach them how to find their faith and keep it. And just as I take myself to the gym and enroll in professional courses, so must I practice my faith daily, even when mortality does not stare me down with stony eyes.
In the words of Kabir: “Jo sukh me sumiran kare, dukh kahe ko hoi.” (Had we remembered Him in good times, why should grief have come!) Note, Kabir doesn’t promise ever-lasting good fortune; he promises no more grief. Perhaps through strength born of faith practiced every day.
I end my epistle now. The sun is bright outside my study. I am going to open the windows wide. I am going to find my Vitamin D.
Shailaja Dixit lives in San Ramon with her husband and two boys. She has been working in the field of market research for 10 years and teaches devotional music as a hobby.