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Vikram Johri: Returning to faith

The idea of God is closely connected to the spiritual, the mysterious, the artistic, the unknown, the transcendent

Vikram Johri 

While I was growing up, there was a time when not believing in God seemed like a really good option. Nothing I knew or wished to understand needed an extraterrestrial force to explain it. It would be easy to say that my interest in science drove my lack of faith, but that would be simplistic. I guess my vision of the divine was not fully formed, and maybe my belief stemmed from a simple give-and-take premise that faith leaders caution against.  

Since I grew up in a deeply religious household, I was accustomed to following the different rituals of religion. I celebrated all (Hindu) festivals and performed pujas with my parents. The lack-of-faith phase led to some trouble at home. I stopped going to the temple and excused myself from performing pujas. I no longer felt the urge to bow my head before an idol, and ended my habit of blinking my eyes and nodding my head as I passed the figure of a deity. 

My lack of faith stemmed partly from anger. I had grown up to believe in a benevolent god. A god of immense mercy. Therefore, when after passing college I passed through a series of painful experiences, I looked to God for succour. Little was forthcoming. I felt angry and disillusioned. I felt I had a right to less pain, and God, in spite of the strength of my belief, was denying me what was rightfully mine. I experienced a deep sense of injustice. 

As time passed, life turned less rocky — or maybe I grew more accustomed to handling the troughs. I came into a stable set-up and began to relax as an individual. I felt less angry with God. I was willing to be more open-minded about him. But I did not restart any of the rituals that had defined my days of deep faith. I still did not visit temples or perform pujas. (During this entire time, I continued to call out to Guru Nanak saheb in times of distress. This was less divine solicitation and more a personal touch in that my mother had raised me to recite his name when I was bereft.) 

Then I met Frank Wilson. Frank was the books editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer. I wrote reviews for him, and we corresponded extensively on several issues. We thought similarly on literature and politics. The one sphere in which Frank changed my views considerably was religion. Frank was, and is, a devout Roman Catholic. He regularly attends church. However, his religiosity is not blind acceptance; it is an active questioning of whatever he may find falling short. To that extent, his faith is an active seeking out rather than a passive come-what-may belief. 

I read arguments proffered by new-age atheists such as Richard Dawkins, and saw a deep scientism, to the exclusion of everything else, in their criticism of God. I saw how belief in logic as the supreme ideal of knowledge was a sort of faith itself and, therefore, did not so much pierce as sit on the boundary of the question of God. I had always been a lover of science, but my love was expansive and beauty-seeking. I would have been perfectly happy to never apply it. It was closer to how mathematician G H Hardy described his craft: “A mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas.”

The idea of God is so much more than what I associated with faith. The idea of God is closely connected to the spiritual, the mysterious, the artistic, the unknown, the transcendent. God may not even be an entity, but a mysterious, genderless force that makes the world go round — not for me to seek help from but to observe, nod and marvel at. Even if I do not bow before an idol, I cannot overlook the deep ignorance that I stare at, which an unknown, unknowable force churns before me.

Maybe the God that I knew as a child was different from the God that I know now. This God is there. He is simply present. He does not expect things from me and he does not promise things in return. He is both a stranger and a deeply intimate friend. He is not idol or temple. He is not rituals or priests. He is the beauty that resides at the heart of every creative impulse and the terror that accompanies every human creation.

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First Published: Sat, December 22 2012. 00:02 IST