I have been a recovering Hindu for a while now although my parents are still grappling with my atheist avatar and still consider it as a passing phase. I refuse to participate in any religious rites but rarely involve myself in heated religion debates. Although my dad claims to be a nastik , he is anything but. Any religious rites that any astrologer will suggest is dutifully carried out without question. When my parents visited us last year, he asked my wife if we celebrate any Indian festivals. She replied, not really. He then proceeded to sneak in one of his judgmental remarks by adding, so there is no occasion for joy? I could simply shake my head in disbelief and bite my tongue to avoid yet another showdown that others have come to expect when we meet. But his remark also made me think – are there any festivals or joyous occasions that atheists can celebrate without invoking any reference of god?
In contemporary India or America, religious festivals are largely community or family events that have little deference to actual religious rites. I’m an avowed atheist and my wife is at best an agnostic. By no measure, we are a religious couple so we hardly expect to raise our kid(s) in any particular religious environment. At the same time, we wouldn’t like them to shy away from our cultural heritage and other community or familial events that would bring much joy to their lives. Consider this post to be more of an open discussion rather than narrating a set of diktats.
Since we are Indians living in America, our kid(s) have the added advantage of celebrating twice the number of festivals. But at the same time, I would like to stay away from the purely religious ones. With the exception of Laxmi Pujan, Diwali is hardly a religious festival and my childhood memories are dominated by sweets and firecrackers. Similarly, Holi is hardly the worship of the bonfire but mostly about the joy of playing with water balloons, pichkaris, and colors. On this side of the pond, Christmas although central to the Christian faith has long departed from remembering the birth of Jesus Christ (Fox News tries to remind us every year in vain) and instead focuses on Santa Claus and the number of gifts he is supposed to bring depending on how good you have been. Easter is more about chocolate eggs and bunnies than about Christ rising again. As you grow older, St. Patricks’ Day is about partying and getting wasted. Thanksgiving doesn’t even have a religion-centric origin and focuses on enjoying a hearty meal with family and friends while watching football.
The only exception would be Ganesh Chaturthi where the entire aim of the festival is to worship a clay idol for 1.5 to 10 days; that is something that I never intend on doing although it is a hundred-year-old tradition in my family. Thankfully my dad has one more son to whom I have gladly passed on the baton of continuing the tradition. I like to think the transition has been smooth and acceptable to all parties concerned.
This thought experiment started out trying to think of festivals and events that we as a family could celebrate without bowing down to an entity that I’m sure doesn’t exist and to my surprise, I found plenty. After my kid(s) grow up, they are free to make up their mind about the existence of god but I, like other religious parents, am going to pass on my beliefs except in my case, they are of atheism. We have images and idols of Hindu gods in our home but none of them are worshipped and merely serve as art pieces. At the same time, I would not like to deprive them of any community or family involvement. I wouldn’t want them to not celebrate any festival that isolates them from their friends or family members. The more I think about it, the festivals that most kids enjoy hardly have any direct religious connotations. In fact, the favorite festival for kids, Halloween is in fact a pagan ritual that many Christian kids enjoy and allowed to do so by their otherwise evangelical parents (kids get free candy so how can they stop them?) We shall have no religious rites or ceremonies that goes against my belief system but merely focus on the joyous times that festivals are supposed to be. There shall be no folding of hands or visiting temples alhough I’m aware that this might hamper our acceptance in the desi community stateside. This is not to say that I’m repulsed by Hindu mythology. On the contrary, I find it quite fascinating and the potential for story-telling is endless and it contains several moral lessons as well. But I draw the line at idolizing any characters and worshipping them.
Do any of you either as parents or future parents have grappled with this dilemma? How do you deal with it? What festivals do you celebrate and how? Or for that matter, have you ever given it a thought or merely shrugged your shoulders and accepted it as it comes?
- Indian term for atheist [↩]