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Paying the Cost

February 2, 2008
Family Gods
I grew up in a family that inherited the religion, rituals and traditions of our caste. We belong to the caste of Hindu Teli. This is a business caste that is linked with producing and selling oil. The word “tel” means oil and hence the caste named “teli”.
We have a clan-god called “khandoba” who is an incarnation of Shiva. Among other gods that my mother introduced me too, the one I worshiped dearly was Ganapati. We had a small dedicated corner in our one room house where we kept all of our gods in a wooden structure called Devhara. I remember that from an early age of 5-6, my mother would ask me to clean the Devhara, wash the small copper and brass idols of various gods, dry them, put a wet dot made from red colored powder called Kunku or an orange colored powder – on the foreheads and hands and feet of all the idols and place them in a certain order in the Devhara. At the end, she would ask me to put some oil in the lamp if needed, light the lamp and also burn some incense. Initially I used to help mom in some of these tasks and then one day she said I could do it all. This process was called Pooja (meaning worship).

As part of this worship, I was also supposed to recite some psalms of praise and worship and also memorize some specific scriptures to praise my favorite god Ganapati. All this usually took an hour and so I would do this once a week – usually on a sunday. Initially I did not like doing all this, but as time passed by it became a routine and I also developed some liking – although I have to confess that a game of Cricket was a better choice for me on a Sunday than Pooja.

The purpose of me doing this was so that I could learn our family tradition of doing Pooja, and also get into the habit of worshiping our family gods.
Comfort in one god
I think after the age of 12-13 I kind of stopped doing pooja on a regular basis – there were multiple reasons, but the primary one being the health issues my mom was going through which made everything else secondary – and also the financial struggles in our family.
I resorted to worshiping my favorite god Ganapati, by going to a local temple, called Sarasbaug, that was very peaceful and popular even though it is in the heart of our Pune city. I remember going to this temple, washing my feet at a tap towards the right or left side of the temple, removing my sandals or shoes and then entering the main auditorium. Before entering I would sound a small bell that was at the entrance of the main auditorium, as if telling god Ganapati that I have come to worship him. Then I would walk up or stay back in the auditorium, depending on the crowd and then pray to Ganapati. My prayers were like a series of dialogs with Him. I could never memorize the praise psalm, called Ganapati Stotra, that is dedicated to praising him, and so I would just talk as if I am talking to a friend. I would tell him all of my challenges, my pain, and areas where I need his help. Then I would pray for my mother, father and other people who I was concerned about. I was not regular in visiting the temple – sometimes daily and some times once in six months. The Sarasbaug temple is a very peaceful place – with lots of trees and the main auditorium made of marble. As soon as you step with your bare feet in the main auditorium, the cold floor would have some sort of a peaceful impact – your eyes get fixated on the beautiful idol of Ganapati and you are mesmerized by its beauty and comforted by the assurance it brought. It was an experience that always had a positive impact on me, whenever I visited the temple. That was the only temple I visited.
By the age of 20 I had stopped doing any pooja in our house and irregular temple visits were the only times of any formal worship for me. I did communicate with Ganapati whenever I was in trouble or needed comfort and it was mostly a personal quick prayer or a thought, wherever I was at that time. I knew he is that one god I can pray to and derive strength from.
Festivals and Traditions
During the years when our family was doing well, we used to celebrate a 10 day festival called Ganapati Festival, once a year. During this festival, we would buy our own idol of Ganapati made out of mud and bring it home. Then one of the Priests, called the Brahman, would come to our house and have some 3-4 hour Pooja specifically to invite god Ganapati to come and become alive in the idol we bought, and then we would worship him for 10 days. Every morning and evening, we would sing praises, songs of worship and offer flowers and food to the idol. We would often invite our neighbors, some of them also had a similar celebration at their home, and share the food with them. This used to be very enjoyable period with the added joy of not having to go to school most of those 10 days.
We also celebrated a festival of lights called Diwali. I think this festival used to last 3-4 days. This is when I would get new clothes and shoes – once a year. This was also the festival when we would get up early in the morning, take a bath with all different kinds of scents and shampoos and then fire crackers with the new clothes on. On the first day of this festival, we also used to worship Laxmi, the goddess of money and prosperity, and request her to never leave our home. I remember when our family was going through health and financial crisis, we did not celebrate either the Ganapati festival or Diwali.
It was very sad to see others wearing new clothes and firing crackers, when I had none. But then, the days would pass by really fast and everything would become normal again.
There was also the festival of Makar Sankranti – celebrated when the sun enters the Northern Hemisphere. We worshiped the Sun by offering milk in a small mud cup and heating the cup over few briskets and allowing the milk to overflow. This festival was celebrated mostly by women, but I used to help my mother in preparation. She used to make special sweets from Sesame Seed and Jagger, called Til-Gul, and then I would around in the neighborhood sharing the sweet with other friends and family.
We also had a festival called Holi – the festival of colors. The goal was to prepare loads and loads of color in small or big buckets, fill balloons with the colored waters and have a exciting color water war with your friends and families in the neighborhood. One would get real colorful and it would hard to recognize each other. My mother prohibited me from playing this colorful festival, since she did not like getting messy. It used to be a ordeal to convince her to allow me to go play Holi with my friends. She did allow it – but not a lot of times that I remember.
One festival that I clearly remember – this was not a festival of our religion or our family – but of the village Vadgaon Budruk that we lived in. There is a village god called Bhairoba, who had a big temple in the center of our village. Once a year, there would be this great festival where the temple would be decorated, and the entire village would be invited to enjoy in a feast. Prior to the feast, different animals were sacrificed to this god – chickens and lambs. And then some families would cook the sacrificed meat and served it as part of the feast (or to selected families – I forgot the exact details). I liked this festival because we would have a huge fair in the village with giant wheels and also play all sorts of games and win prizes. I remember my mom giving me some money to go spend at the fair once in a while. Unfortunately I never won anything at the fair.
There are a lot more festivals we celebrate during the year, but these are the ones I vividly remember.
Aside from the festivals, there were some of the traditional things that my Mom and other women in the neighborhood would do. One of them was a small gathering of all married women, called Haldi-Kunku. This was a tradition where all married women gathered at one home where all of them were invited, and then they would put Haldi-Kunku (a turmeric powder and a red powder), on each others forehead, exchange some dry rice grains, whole coconut and occasionally some gifts. This happened regularly in our neighborhood. I would help mom in the preparation whenever we hosted this at our home. She would also make me do the rounds in our neighborhood and invite other women for this get together at our place.
Another such traditional event was the early morning singing and praising meetings that took place in my village in the main temple. These were seasonal and started with the coming of winter. Right at 4am in the morning, the central temple of the village that had all kinds of gods in it, people started gathering and started singing songs and praises with wonderful music. It would go on for at least 3 hours. I tried to make it sometimes and whenever I did, it was a great experience.
As part of the some of the cultural things, I grew up learning to respect elders, never speak arrogantly to any elderly person, never call them by their first name, respect my teachers in school, obey my parents and suffer through their punishments. I cannot remember talking back to my parents – because I knew the consequences would be terrible (lot of spanking). Whenever any elderly relatives visited us or we visited them, I had to bend and touch their feet to show respect and receive blessings. My mom taught me to draw nice designs called Rangoli in our small front yard with a peculiar powder that was not fine but somewhat grainy and white in color.
Social Fabric
As you can see, there were many religious, traditional and cultural things that I grew up with. As I started observing them as an adult, I realized that the Hindu religion that I was exposed to, its traditons, culture and social activities were all so intertwined that they kind of formed a fabric around which our society was functioning. One could not point an one thing, or once one started taking it apart, it will have something connected in some other area – and the whole fabric became necessary to define what it is that held our society together. There were differences in these areas across different castes and clan under the Hindu religion, but they all kind of worked together without any single scriptural or unifying concept, apart from the fact that all these gods ultimately are a representation of one eternal god. The caste and clan system did create divisions among who can worship which god and what role one plays in the overall worship process – but I had not witnessed that the differences were divisive. There was much tolerance in me for other gods – even though I might not have been allowed to worship or walk into that part of their house where the gods were kept and worshiped. I trace this source of tolerance back to lack of any authoritative endorsement on my mind, by my parents or any scripture, so as to make others gods, as non-gods. Every god – respected and accepted.
My life was not revolving around one god, even though I had my favorite god Ganapati. I would not mind walking into a temple and bowing down before a god I have never seen or heard of. Worship came naturally as an action, with reverence and awe and praise for the god, that for me was beyond the idol. Somehow I knew in my heart that even though I am bowing down in front of this idol right now, I am praising the god that I believe is beyond this idol – this idol was an object of my worship at that time because I needed to see some tangible representation of the god I am worshiping in a physical form. The physical presence of god in the idol was not a required condition to worship – but was assuring and comforting to see it. Similar to what we feel when we talk to someone in person vs communicating over email or chatting.
Cost of Following Jesus
During the adult years of 23 through 25 I came across Jesus Christ, through one of my best friends (and now my beloved wife, Uma Joshi). As I read about Jesus and his claims and his call to be his disciple in the Bible, a storm was taking shape that would end up challenging all of my beliefs (more about this in the next post).
As I was evaluating this Jesus of the Bible, it was becoming prominent that I am being forced to evaluate how I came to believe what I believed. Where did the faith in the gods I had, come from? Why did I go to the temple? What was prayer, to me? What is my religion?
I also had to face this ultimate question – Either Jesus Christ is truly God and all that is written in the Bible about him is true or these are fabricated stories and Jesus Christ is no god – just a good moral person who lived a great life and gave some amazing principles to the world around him.
But at the same time, the cost of following Jesus seemed high. I will have to give up my religious identity of being a Hindu Teli – not because that is exactly how it was prescribed in the bible – but as a response to the call of Jesus to leave everything and follow him. It was his test to see if I would follow him – if I really believed him. It was a huge cost – all I knew about god and all my faith in the various gods needed to be erased from my mind. I needed to tell my parents, relatives and friends (as those times came forth and whenever I may need to participate in religious festivals or traditions) that I would not be taking part in those festivals and rituals any more because their meaning and significance would be lost on me. I had to give up on my participation in any sort of religious activity, even going to the temple of my favorite god Ganapati, because I had found the true and living God who was beyond the temple and the idol I used to worship and talk to.
It was the toughest decision of my life.
But after evaluating all this, I decided to follow Jesus Christ as my Lord. He would henceforth be the only one who would ever be worshiped by me as God.
Because I had never seen or heard of anyone who laid down His own life for others and claimed to do so because he loved them – and that he did this as an act of obedience (to His Father in heaven) to free mankind from this world and provide them an eternal place. This love was too wonderful for me to let go off. If this love called me to sacrifice my life, I would have done it.
I was overwhelmed by His love for me. Abandoning my religion, festivals, traditions and possibly severed relationships with my family and friends – was a small cost to pay – in comparison to what Jesus Christ paid for me on the cross with His life – and giving me a new life that would be shaped by Him.

From → Real in Christ

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