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Love me, love my belief
An increasing number of couples, married or not, are ensuring they don't let faith, or the lack of it, come between the sheets and their lives.
God is the white elephant in our marriage. The unseen guest we don't talk about," says 37-year-old Anita Ray, all the while looking at a cherubic image of baby Krishna framed on the wall of her study. But then, Anita knew exactly what she was getting into when her boyfriend - now husband - proposed to her "all those years ago" in the late '90s.
"We were very young, very broke and very much in love. We were on the terrace of his parents' apartment in Pune looking at the stars when we decided to spend the rest of our lives together, " she says. "I remember looking up at the night sky, murmuring 'God will take care of us just as he takes care of the stars'. Or something along those lines. To which my worse half put his arms around me and tenderly whispered in my ear: 'You do realise that there's no such thing as god, right?"
Gods and religious rites may be woven into the fabric of the Indian ethos, but atheists, agnostics and the odd nihilist seem to have carved out quite a space for themselves, not letting their lack of belief in an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient deity come in the way of married life. "There are pitfalls, but nothing that can't be resolved with respect and dialogue," says Miriam Abraham, who sees herself as an agnostic veering towards atheism. "The only problem is that no one in my family takes me seriously when I tell them that I don't think there is a god. My parents comfort themselves by telling relatives it's a phase I will grow out of. Never mind that I'm 32," she says ruefully. The only demand she makes of her husband, a practising Christian, is that there be no religious icons in the house. In return, Miriam has promised not to 'debate' on the existence of god with family and friends. "It can get violent," she says, only half in jest. She limits herself to the occasional 'god will be angry' whenever her husband strays from the straight and narrow path.
But militant atheism, which evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins is accused of, is yet to grow roots in India. In his bestseller, The God Delusion, Dawkins delivers a scathing attack on all believers, agnostics and everyone in between. "If my husband took that tone with me and said I was delusional for believing in a god, I'd leave him," says Anita.
Radhika Khanna, a Thai food caterer, describes her husband as a staunch atheist. Her belief in a god, though not representing any particular religion, is decidedly at odds with her husband's take on life. "He believes in the self. That we can't and should not rely on any other supernatural force to make things happen." Their 12-year-old daughter, she says, is slowly adopting her father's beliefs. But life at the Khanna household chugs along, with the occasional hiccup. "I wanted to conduct a puja for Diwali and finally decided to put up pictures of all the gods," recalls Radhika. So while Jesus jostled for space with Laxmi and Ganpati, Radhika requested everyone - husband included - to pray to anyone they wanted to. "I told my husband that he need not pray to any god, but for wisdom and peace," she says.
But it's unlikely that Dawkins' brand of militant atheism will ever gain a foothold in India, simply because Hinduism is not aggressive or strictly structured. When Albert Einstein was asked by Rabbi Herbert Goldstein of the Institutional Synagogue if he believed in god, he replied: "I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a god who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings." It was Baruch Spinoza's belief in an abstract god that got him expelled from the Dutch Jewish society at age of 23. And though those events unfolded in the 17th Century, little has changed as millions of people continue to reject the dogma and the way god is portrayed in organised religion. Many like Miriam, who are disillusioned with the message contained in sacred texts or the religious system itself, are looking for answers in different places. Karen Armstrong's A History Of God was an eye-opener for Abraham. In her essays and books, Armstrong does not present a case for god, nor does she attack His or Her existence. "She simply puts god in a historical context and arms you with the tools for further exploration," says Abraham. Unlike most couples, Hannah and Rodney D'Souza don't dodge the god issue. "He faithfully drops me to church and picks me up after Sunday mass, but he won't come in," says Hannah. "My husband's ire is directed at organised religion and not at the teachings of Christ per se. So I have to put up with jibes like 'And what did the fat padre say this week?' and 'Oh, they are anti-abortion, are they? What about grown humans? Where were they when bombs were being dropped on Iraq?" For most believers, god can be a source of strength and comfort or a cold judgemental being - it all depends on which side of the coin you choose to flip. But the dogma of organised religion can be so intimidating that Hannah says there are times when she agrees with her husband. Until the two can find common ground, she will have nothing to say when the two mothers - "his and mine" - ask her hopefully if Rodney went to Church. "And when I say no, they reply, 'We are praying for him'."
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