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August 06, 2013

The Karma of Consumerism

Text by Priya Mirchandani. Illustration by Wyanet Vaz.

Has the land of spirituality succumbed to the global triarchy of religion, politics and brands? Priya Mirchandani looks for some existential answers to this unholy mess

  • Maha Kumbh, Priya Mirchandani
  • Maha Kumbh, Priya Mirchandani
  • Maha Kumbh, Priya Mirchandani
  • Maha Kumbh, Priya Mirchandani

Every 12 years, all the way since the Age of the Puranas, Allahabad has played host to an event described recently by American television network CBS, as ‘one of the most extraordinary displays of faith on Earth”, the Maha Kumbh. A festival of atonement and absolution at the confluence of three holy rivers, the Triveni. ‘It is wonderful the power of a faith like this, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak, the young and frail, enter without hesitation or complaint, upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining,’ observed Mark Twain at the Maha Kumbh in 1895. Over the last century these multitudes have grown exponentially, transforming this pilgrimage into the ‘biggest show on Earth’, to quote the BBC – a veritable pop-up megacity that drew a hundred million people this year, including luminaries like Harvard University researchers. Media crews from the world over witnessed this massive phenomenon of Hindu baptism, atonement and absolution, and beamed it live to all corners of the earth.

Given the scale, it was hardly surprising that the holy sangam became a confluence of brands, marketers and consumers. Multinational corporations came in droves to this ‘low clutter area’, looking for salvation from their oversaturated markets. They offered the pilgrims a whole new experience, the brand experience, up close and personal. Colas to cell phones, the new mantra of brand bhakti was abundantly chanted at the Maha Kumbh 2013. Once the dust settled, and the media was back in its plush studios, the corporates in their boardrooms and devotees were home dipping into their goody bag of free samples, what remains on the banks of the Ganga isn’t remotely holy. It is in fact, an unholy mess. The biggest show on Earth transformed into its biggest dump, 4000 acres strewn with filth, dead flowers, plastic bags and bottles, shoes, and sewage. The super-efficient government machinery that marketed and managed this mammoth event through the six-week duration, retreated along with the pilgrims (read vote banks), leaving the local priests to clean up the remains of man’s greatest display of faith. Just makes you wonder, if the Kumbh is a quest for answers, it has paradoxically left in its wake some looming questions. Does man’s attempt to reaffirm his faith in God have to be measured in TRPs? Is religion turning into just another powerful media channel for marketers? Is consumerism becoming India’s new religion? Will the magnetism of brands and memes overtake the popular appeal of the pantheon of Indian Gods? Is the fabled chosen one born to unite the millions divided by religion, merely a brand? Or is this just a divine prank played by Goddess Lakshmi, the purveyor of wealth and acquisition, as she ups her modus operandi?

The reek of putrefying garbage from the holy confluence has hardly faded, before we’re hit again by the fresh stench of greed, wafting from the epicentre of the Himalayan Tsunami. The recent flash floods and landslides in the seismically-fragile Kedarnath valley in Uttarakhand, continue the story of destruction of yet another holy pilgrimage sight. The cause this time – aggressive, unregulated, illegal and environmentally-disastrous construction in the last decade that has changed the very lay of this land in more ways than one. Rampant deforestation and damming of river waters for hydel projects seems to have finally triggered the wrath of River Mandakini, who found herself with no natural outlet for her swollen waters, this June. Thousands of pilgrims witnessed her rage, as they trekked 11000 feet up the Kedarnath range to the Shiv temple, in an attempt to strengthen their link with God. Instead, some lost their very link with life, while others with their loved ones, homes and livelihoods. The Kedarnath Badrinath Temple Committee which owns most of the land in the valley, saw a 300 per cent hike in pilgrim traffic over the last decade and opted to green up their bank account while giving Kedarnath a cheap concrete makeover. Consequently, the Valley that is usually flush with pilgrims this time of year, transformed into an unmitigated deluge of devotees, as the entire nation watched helplessly. Read it as the incensed tandav of Lord Shiva, protesting against the pitiful erosion of both land and values. Or read it as a wake-up call for a nation that remains ironically apathetic to its environment, but mega prompt in making ‘offerings’ to the sacred elements. Or even as an avoidable man-made disaster that encourages a leap from, and not of faith. Or perhaps as the memes of a consumerist and morally-ambiguous culture we have created. Read it any way you want to, but do read. And reflect.

We live in a land where sacred surrounds us 360 degrees. Cows, rivers, flowers, trees, books, almost everything the eye settles on, has a sacred significance. The odds of blasphemy therefore, are sky high, pun much intended. And like the 100 million who attended the Maha Kumbh, we were taught by the very priest who sits lamenting by the Ganga, that the antidote to blasphemy is a dip in the holy waters, or a trek to the mountain-top shrine, 11000 feet above sea level. A single snaan can wash away a lifetime of transgressions, a single darshan can haul in heaps of divine blessings. Given we’re not exactly the country of saints we once were, the holy Ganga in the aftermath of the Maha Kumbh has turned into a colossal statistic in contamination. It now festers with what could be called the pollution of our souls, the grime we shake off to ensure our place in heaven. Does it matter if our biggest and steadily decreasing water resource turns into a giant sewer, so long as our bodies and souls are cleansed and ready for astral take off? Or that the valley of our Gods flows with the blood of our people, not because the Gods willed it, but because the men in power sanctioned it. We fail to see that in following what is often presented to us as tenets of our religion, we commit the biggest sin of our lives. Falling prey to the fear factor invoked by men no holier than us, we ritualise our faith, turn discourse into dogma and cohesion into conflict. Conflict brings the quest for answers, which, to many, is the search for God. We make distant pilgrimages to far away lands, meet mystics and embrace reclusion to find God, and having done so, turn our newfound zeal into a license to discriminate, hurt, even kill, and lose the very thing that makes every person ever born, the closest thing to his Maker. His humanity. Like Martin Luther King said, we live in a world full of guided missiles and misguided men. Subtly and surely, we’ve been nudged into a life, blue-printed not so much by the Almighty, as by his preachers. Smartly packaged and brilliantly hawked to us by the multinationals. In short, we’ve been played. And it isn’t the Gods in heaven who are rolling the dice.

Religion is an inward journey, a mirror that reflects a man’s highest self. Desecration of a country’s vital water resource reeks of the opposite. As does blowing up innocents for kneeling before a different God. By using religion to turn the world into an unholy mess, whether by persecution or pollution, we’re clearly way off tangent.

Could the resolution lie in the origins of the word ‘God’? The English word good is identical to the Anglo Saxon word good, so one can infer that God refers to divine goodness. Retracing this from its Germanic roots all the way back to its oldest known etymology brings us to the Aryans in Central Asia. To the Sanskrit word ‘Hu’ meaning the invoked one, the divine being, the creator. Interestingly, ‘man’ (read ‘mana’) in Sanskrit refers to mind. Put them together and you have ‘human’, the divine in your mind. Most religions resonate with this philosophy, at their core. What if that’s all there is to it. God is an all-powerful energy that gives us life. And life is the energy we call God. God is within and without, in every sentient being, in every ‘human’ at the very least. By hurting a fellow human, we end up wounding ourselves, and the God within us.

After 2000 years or more, religion still remains a lightning rod for debate and controversy, not to mention destruction of life. Maybe, we need to lose our religion, in order to find our faith. Perhaps for a change, we could shift focus to the God within, that burning intelligence, that life force that pulses through us all. If we could just suspend the debate on whether we exist because God created us, or whether God exists because we created him, and who has the final intellectual property, rights and patents on him…. The need of the hour is not how we came into existence, and who called first dibbs, but rather, do we want to remain in existence? And if we do, our biggest challenge is to protect the existence around us, as we would defend our own. To accept the sacred interconnectedness of everything on this planet, the universe even, and preserve it. The life forms, the flora, the fauna, the elements – the very ecosystem that keeps the God within us, the life force, alive. Endangering or ignoring any of these, and then kneeling down to pray for absolution, isn’t just a sin, it is sheer stupidity. Having placed ourselves right on top of the pyramid of all sentient life in creation, we now need to prove it. For hundreds of years we’ve allowed ourselves to be told how to live our lives by the high priests and holy men. Obviously learned nothing, judging by the eagerness with which we have invited the neo priests – the holy corporates and the sacred political heads and other powers that be, to tell us who to trust, who to hate, what to eat, what to wear, where to live, and how to be. With scarcely more to show for it, than the loss of life and its resources. Is wilfully cutting off our own life support systems and turning our home into a hazardous zone, the act of the highest living intelligent life form? Or razing a nation and its people to dust as punishment for the misdoings of a few misguided men, a sign of power? Altering the natural course of a mighty river without factoring in the long-term impact…. If anything, these are acts of anti-intelligence, and therefore the ultimate sacrilege to life itself. It isn’t our own absolution we need to worry about at this point. It’s time to absolve the God we believe in, man up and finally let him off the hook, he’s taken the rap for too many of our misdoings.

Let’s finally engage that God particle that’s been sitting idle inside all of us, for centuries. In an homage to our ancient land of mythology, consider this spin: We are being pursued by a wily demon called Development, which is good up to a point but loses its conscience when it picks up speed, and ironically leaves in its wake a trail of destruction. Even more ironical is the fact that this demon is a creation of our own individual intellects, powered by our insatiable need for more. Right now, he seems unstoppable, hurtling out of control, threatening to crush his own creators. Our only weapon is what created it in the first place –our intellect. This time around, used in its highest form, for a cause bigger than the self. So here it is then, our true religion, the Collective. Because goodness all said and done, always overcomes greatness.

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