I can’t remember exactly how old I was when I told my Dada (grandfather) that I didn’t believe in god. It was an interesting conversation. And my introduction to advaitic thought and the beginning of many years of reading and learning vedantic and upanishadic texts. But what I want to talk about is what brought me to that decision of atheism. As my grandfather pointed out, not believing in god is not a bar to being hindu. In many ways it is the antecedent to brahman. I think at least part of my reason for not believing in god was a deep-seated desire to have nothing to do with the hinduism that I saw around me. So I’m talking here not of just religious thought but of codified religious hegemony. That which legitamises the creation of a caste-based hierarchy that I passionately disagree with and am fundamentally opposed to. So being an atheist was a possible escape.
Now let’s talk about why I like my Dada. I could always depend on him to point out what would then be entirely obvious. People in power like to stay in power. People in power don’t like it when people whom they oppress don’t do what they’re told. And if you don’t want to be the person who has ‘power over’ then you have a pretty simple and incredibly frustrating time ahead. Witness the smartness: he didn’t try to convince me of reasons why I should want to be hindu. He just told me that it wasn’t something I could opt out of. That it was part of where I come from and as such part of who I would become. This was a valuable lesson in the nature of privilege. Whether or not I align myself with the system of oppression my name and my genealogy gives me privilege as a brahmin. It is, from that point on, up to me to determine whether being brahmin gives me automatic brahman. Or, as I believe, gives me sufficient tools to know atman and strive for brahman through the life I live.
So here is my favourite poem that conveys the problem of religious hegemony most clearly and without apology.
Advaita: the utlimate question (By Meena Kandasamy)
The formatting of the last two lines has gone a bit funky so I’d suggest you click the link in the title to get it the way is should be. I also highly recommend that you go read more of her poetry. You can find it here. She’s a very talented poet-woman-dalit-feminist-activist who writes about the world as she experiences it. Oh and if you discover you like her poetry and her politics you should also read her personal blog. It is a joy to read the work of someone who writes as well as she does and has at least as much of a love and appreciation of baba saheb Ambedkar as I!