Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Anchors in Stormy Seas: Thoughts on piety and rational thought

It was a balmy spring morning.  So balmy that one would have excused the daffodils in case they chose to sleep in and miss their turn to bloom.  My mother was driving to the temple on the interstate at a speed that was a tad above the speed limit but not fast enough to interest the nearby cops.  Meanwhile on a perpendicular road, another driver decided that the traffic rules did not apply to her and chose to drive right past a stop sign…into my mom’s car.  My mom, the cops, the daffodils and most importantly, the airbag were all shaken out of their idyll.  I was in Pittsburgh, working on a group project with my classmates when dad called.  My reaction, once I got to know that mom had escaped with some bruises, was, “Why did she meet with an accident when she was going to, of all places, the temple?”  Dad’s reaction was just a little different – you know the minute difference between chalk and cheese?  He said, “Just be happy that she was driving to the temple.  It was God that saved her.”

A few thousand miles away, a man in his early 30s had not heard great news from his sister's doctor.  Actually, the doctor herself was not great news – she was a fraudster who sadly did not find other professions to swindle people out of their hard earned money.  So, for the next few years, they had to suffer from the effects of needless surgeries and their related side effects.  The man, a nonbeliever, spent countless hours gleaning relevant research materials to identify the best course of treatment, giving short shrift to his own career.  They then happened upon a doctor who, thanks to his skill and kind-heartedness, scripted a heartwarming end to a rather dark chapter in their life -- the sister recovered fully and the brother revitalized his career.  And what happened to the charlatan?  Nothing untoward as far as I know (but that really is beside the point).

My parents are equal opportunity believers.  Of the plethora of Hindu Gods, they have never shied away from worshipping any deity.  In essence, they have never fenced themselves within the confines of our subsect of Hinduism.  In the late 90s, my Dad experienced an inexplicable but definite affinity towards Lord Muruga.  He started worshipping Muruga with the kind of passion and vigor that seemed strong even for his standards.  One night, he started writing a supplicatory poem on Muruga.  But here is the thing.  There was nothing in the poem for him.  He did not pray for himself or ‘ask’ for anything in particular.  The verses were strongly rooted in values.  Sample the first two lines – Aganthai Azhiponey Poatri, Aganthooimai ALiponey Poatri…  It roughly translates into a plea to remove all traces of arrogance and bless people with purity of heart.  

To me, these people that I have mentioned above represent the best of either ends of the theism spectrum.  They are very clear about their anchors.  Whenever turbulence strikes their life in any way, shape or form, they know when and how to drop anchor.  Their anchors are sturdy, unwavering and help them weather many a storm.  One anchor might be carved out of rational thought, the other out of religious beliefs.  But they contribute largely to the steeliness of their owners.  I also find it enormously touching that they use the anchors to lend solid support to their close relationships.  I recently read a quote by author Anna Quindlen that “grief is a whisper in the world and a clamor within.”  I have been witness to these people utilizing what is best known to them to acknowledge and act upon their loved ones’ needs.  In essence, their authentic reactions, as different as they may be from one another, are musical notes played lovingly to gently silence the painful internal "clamor."  If in one case the instrument is passionate prayers, in another case is deep thoughtfulness.  Both have a rightful place in this world because, after all, they are utilized in service of the most noble value of all – selflessness. 

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23 comments:

ravishanker sunderam said...


Ram : That was a singular angle of looking at being anchored.

Normally they say that only in religion can one be anchored.

After reading your article, it appears to me that strong belief in atheism is also a religion !

My takeaway is that at the end of the day one has to be anchored to more permanent realities to withstand life's stormy seas (how pompous that sounds - you have a way with this subject that I never will have)

I like the way you highlighted the common threads at both ends of the spectrum.
And its amazing how you seek out these threads.

Viveka parasuram said...

When calamity strikes, how one reacts defines their true character. Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella has very beautifully said how he changed his attitude after he got to know of his son's illness. His initial reaction was, "Why did this happen to me?". He later understood that nothing had happened to him but only to his son and so started to focus on his recovery. Oftentimes, when a calamity strikes, we happen to fret and fume but we need to realize that we can also give rather than just take during these situations. Very very well written, Ram. It's nice that you are so aware. It's certainly going to make you a better human being.

Anupama Shivakumar said...

What a wonderful piece of writing! I love ur dads response to ur moms accident :)

anupama kumar said...

What a wonderful piece of writing! Specially loved ur dads response to ur moms accident

Ram Murali said...

Ravishanker, Viveka and Anu - thank you all for your kind, thoughtful comments. I really appreciate your support and encouragement.

Stacie said...

I am so glad your mom was ok! I am always interested in the interplay between rational thought and religious beliefs since I myself am a scientist who is not religious. Thank you for sharing.

IASoupMama said...

I like the thought you started about pray and thought -- I, myself, do not pray, but I do reflect and think and use thought to digest the world around me.

Parul said...

Good to know your Mum was okay. Sometimes I wonder if it's God who saves us or our story runs by the way He has written it. Great story and glad you shared.

Christine Hanolsy said...

This is a really thoughtful post. I like how you center it around the idea of anchors - that they can take different forms, but play the same role. It's a thing we all need, I think.

Michelle Longo said...

I really appreciated the part about the daffodils. I know it wasn't at all the main idea, but it was a great image early on and then brought a little relief to the story of the car accident.

Ram Murali said...

Stacie / IASoupMama / Parul / Christine / Michelle -
Thank you all for your kind comments and mentioning specific things that worked for you. Your feedback is most appreciated and most welcome. Thank you.

Rowan Grigsby said...

I like the strong parallels you drew, and that you presented both sides without judgment, trusting that your reader could bring their own understanding and truth to the truths you presented without having to be led forcefully to one or the other.

Ram Murali said...

Thank you, Rowan, for your thoughtful comment. Much appreciated.

Sara said...

Science vs God, prayer vs treatment is a debate running since times unknown but for me its a mix of both.A very thoughtful piece,Ram!

Ram Murali said...

Sara - thank you for your comment. Yes, you raise a good point. Seeing your comment makes me wish that I had mentioned the definite possibility that many people may have a mix of both and still be anchored.

Anu Warrier said...

I really do like these pieces of yours, Ram. I liked the juxtaposition of theism vs. atheism, and the goodness you find in both. I've sometimes wished I'd more faith - I've seen how it helps my sister-in-law. But I don't, alas. So, for me, it's rational thought that anchors me. Yet, I can respect how my sister-in-law's faith anchors her and provides her much needed relief and support.

it appears to me that strong belief in atheism is also a religion !

Ravi Shanker, but isn't it? Hinduism is the only religion in the world which accepts atheism (advaita) as a valid path to salvation. (Thus speaketh a strong agnostic-veering-on-the-atheist. :) )

Ram Murali said...

Anu, thank you for your thoughtful comment. I remember you mentioning your sister-in-law when we had met. I am as admiring of resilient people as I am amazed at the different sources of strength (or "anchors") that people have - religion, rationalism, science, family, friends...

I find what you said about "advaita" in Hinduism fascinating. Reminds me of Parthiban's wonderful line from his book of poems - "Uruvam Thavirthu Unara Thodangu...Kaadhalo...KadavuLo." I suppose the "kadavuLo" could be any source of strength, doesn't have to be a 'God' per se.

Rahini David said...

I don't think there is a strong belief in athiesm. There is no such thing as a strong belief in athiesm.

I find that religious people do just as much as any athiest to safeguard themselves their loved ones from harm. They eat healthy to safeguard their health. They workout and keep themselves fit. They eat medicines when sick after consulting a Doc. They lock their homes and they buy insurance. They educate themselves and their children. This is all like the main course of life. We need these to sustain ourselves and those who depend on us.

And then there is faith that is like dessert. Some people seem to have a taste of it. To them it is the best and most important part of food. Others do not have the taste bud for it and can't understand what the fuss is all about. When we see someone eat that dessert and feel ecstasy we do wonder if it is a drug. We wonder (some times aloud) if this dessert is really a good one. But it usually seems like a good addition to one's diet.

If someone skips the main course to have too much of the dessert, we all collectively frown on them. (I mean those who are so religious that they do not want to visit hospitals for checkups, and those who do not insure their lives, those who fast too much). Main courses are important. Desserts are optional.

Deep down we all know that all we can do is do our best and accept that not everything is within our control. We all phrase that thought differently.

Partiban's lines rocked.

Wishes for your mother to recover soon.

Ram Murali said...

Rahini - thank you for your thoughtful comment. Good to see you on the blog after a hiatus. Your line on doing our best and accepting that not everything is within our control is absolutely right. I just think that the "anchor" helps with respect to the acceptance factor.
BTW, Amma's accident happened in 2008. She is doing fine now, knock on wood.

ravishanker sunderam said...

Anu : Great comment ! We all veer towards atheism at one time or the other. Speaking for myself I didnt have such an option since I wrote the CA Inter exam :).

There are no atheists in fox holes.

To digress, I was busy with a cartoon on you but its only in the concept stage. I showed it to a friend and colleague on whom I bounce off these ideas and he was rolling in the aisles :)


Rahini : Thats an interesting point of view though I differ. There are some whose brand and livelihood depends on the strong belief in atheism - like our very own Wolakanayagan.

I'll go with Dale Carnegie : "Why dont we have a belief in a Superior power because we NEED such a belief ?"


Really heartening to see the comments section going strong on this article of Ram's.

Rahini David said...

Ravi, I share Kamal's passionate hatred towards religion. And as an entertainer his cashing on it in a few movies is not surprising. Bill Maher does it better in his speeches.

But when a huge crisis enters an Athiest's life, his or her answer to the problem is not to ponder deeply about the absence of gods. We look for actual solutions. Like every one does. It saddens me beyond belief that people go around trees to give birth to male children. It does not work that way. We all know that in our heart of hearts. We have convinced ourselves that it is impolite to interfere in certain delusions. We pretend to admire their piety.

Does anyone actually believe god will change the sex of a child mid-pregnancy if the grandmother forgoes mutton? 😊

Ram Murali said...

Ravishanker / Rahini - nice thoughtful comments from both of you. As diverse as they are I can see where you are coming from. Many thanks!

ravishanker sunderam said...

Rahini : Very well put but hey ! You dont rate down with that scumbag ! He is very "discerning about which religion he hates.