Religious Pretences

I was at a house warming earlier this evening. More specifically, I was at a prayer ceremony for a new house. Most of the Hindus I know perform prayers or kathas (which, if you’re an English-speaker, probably isn’t pronounced the way you think it is) to cleanse and bless a new house or car. Not being religious and having arrived late, I opted to not disrupt anything by walking in on the prayers, instead hanging about outside the house. As it turned out, the house was on a road that ran around a large bird sanctuary and dam. So, as a means to pass the time, I took a walk around the sanctuary.

All I saw were a bunch of hadedas, tho there were several mini noticeboards that assured me there were spoonbills, guinea fowls, bullfrogs and a host of other bird and semi-aquatic life to be found. Of course, the steady drizzle that began after I started my walk may have meant they were all sheltering somewhere.

After about an hour, I made my way back to the house. There was sufficient chatter and movement to indicate the possibility of the prayer’s close. As it turned out, the bustle was just preparation for the final segment. That was fine by me. I seated myself next to my parents and quietly witnessed the last part of the katha.

Seemed to me that I was one of very few who thought that sitting quietly observing was the right thing to do. Naturally, I’d expect there’d be some talk but I also expected that any conversations would be short and muted. It sounded like we were in a tube station at peak hour!

So here’s the thing. I am fully supportive of those people who have their various rituals that they deem important. I have my own. What I don’t get is the lack of respect from others. Everyone surely knew they were coming to a katha. My parents certainly knew when they received their invite. And knowing that a katha generally does last a fair amount of time, if they were not prepared to be a part of the ceremony or at least aim to observe respectfully, why bother coming?

Oh wait, of course, because it is important to show face and pretend to care. After all, that’s what it’s all about. Especially when it comes to religious ceremonies. It is more important to be present than to be a part of, so I’ve observed. I’ve come to understand, through said observations, that the gods of these people are happy to note them present at such ceremonies and mark them as candidates for a heavenly afterlife. The fact that there are more discussions of last night’s episode of Desperate Housewives than attention to the prayers are of little consequence.

Indeed, up until the very last part of the ceremony called the aarthi when the entire congregation stood to join in singing the aarthi, any passerby would be hard pressed to think that there was any sacredity to the process that was happening.

It isn’t, to me, about accepting the ritual nor the religion that demands it. It’s about respect. In the same way that you wouldn’t expect the preacher at a Christian wedding to have to compete with the loud conversations of the assemblage. Nor would you want to listen to the audience at a play or movie. You go to a wedding to observe the actual wedding ceremony, same as you’d go to a play or movie to watch the show. Comments that need to be passed to your neighbours are often done quietly so as not to disrupt anybody else’s experience. At least, that’s the general idea.

Such was not the case here. Apart from a few observers, it was only the pundit and the family of the house that were really giving the katha their full attention.

The sad part about it is, the chances are, if the pundit had called for some respectful silence so that he might do his job, he would have been considered disrespectful. Uh huh, those noisy people totally do not think they are in the wrong. They have shown face. They have made the effort to be there, bums on seats. That’s all they need to do. I’ve seen similar situations before. No reprimands. No appeals would be made. It’s just one of those things. If you’re going to have a Hindu prayer in South Africa, don’t expect the congregation to attempt to add to the sacredness of the ceremony.

I can only assume that’s how it’s always been. Maybe it’s the same in India. I didn’t attend any prayers in India so I can’t say.

Still, I feel it is a total lack of respect not only for the religion that these people have aligned themselves to, but especially to the hosts and the pundit who has given his or her time and energy to conduct the ceremony.