Can Culture exist independent of Religion?

Last month I had been to the temple town Tiruchanoor (near Tirupati) to take part in the grand celebrations of Brahmotsavam of the Goddess Padmavati. I have been attending this festival fairly regularly every year. I often wondered why I attend this so regularly without fail. Is it because I am a great devotee? No chance. I do not consider myself as one. Do I love the elaborate rituals that go on and on endlessly? No way. I’m not much of a lover of rituals either. In fact I do not perform any rituals at home.  I discourage rituals, especially those that lead to wastage of food items like ghee which is poured into fire as an oblation or offering to Gods. In a country where so many poor go hungry without food, I believe it’s a colossal waste. It’s not just ghee that is wasted – the priests use a lot of other stuff like coconut water, honey,milk, curd, fruits and what not. OMG, the amount of food stuff that goes waste is mind-boggling. I’m aware that purists and traditionalists would vehemently oppose my views in this respect.

Then, why do I attend this festival so regularly? I’m trying to make sense of my annual visits.

I have two great reasons to take part in the festivities: The festival presents rituals, no doubt, but most of the rituals are performed to the accompaniment of certain mantras and Nadaswaram music. Music is a big attraction for me in this festival. One may wonder how this is different from what we get to hear in Chennai or Bombay. It’s indeed a very different kind of experience. It’s different especially when the royal procession of the Goddess seated in a decorated vehicle is taken around the small town. The procession takes about three hours to complete and one is fully entertained with one of the finest exhibitions of Nadaswaram recital by some very talented players. This is pure classical music. It’s uniqueness lies in the fact that it takes place in the cool hours of late evening out in the open. The beauty of the music and the ambience complement each other and one can easily lose oneself completely.  The spiritual experience one gets out of a great Nadaswaram recital in the cool hours of late evening is simply unmatched. Good music in the right ambience has the capacity to take one’s mind to a level where the real self is experienced.

The second reason for my annual visits relates to the celebration of Tirumanjanam or holy bath of the goddess conducted to the accompaniment of mantras from Upanishads. What a contrast – Upanishad mantras, describing reality on one hand and the ritualistic holy bath of the goddess on the other! The various actions performed are aesthetically pleasing and conducted with great reverence. This is accompanied by chanting of mantras which are declarations of the ultimate reality. The ritual is performed as dictated by the karma kanda of the Vedas while the mantras are straight from Upanishads which are at the end of each Veda (otherwise known as Vedanta). The beauty of the Upanishads is that it doesn’t deal with any Gods or Goddesses. In fact there is no mention of names of any gods. It gives only the vision of Truth. Let me illustrate this with an example from Tatriya Upanishad. It starts off with the famous statement – Satyam Jnanam Anantam brahma. This statement encapsulates the entire Vedanta beautifully, if understood properly. Let me try to explain. Brahman, in the Vedic terminology, refers to the ultimate reality. A simple translation of the mantra is : Brahman or Eswara is Existence, all-knowledge and limitless. Put differently, all that is here is Brahman. What does this mean? It simply means that you, me, the entire universe, our minds, the cosmic order, psychological order and every other order – conceivable and inconceivable – is Brahman. This necessarily leads to the inevitable conclusion of non-duality or Advaita. The beauty of this declaration is that it defines reality without naming any god. The god can be Jesus or Allah or Eswara or Narayana as long as one understands It as Satyam, Jnanam, Anantam.

In the light of such great mantras which go with a highly ritualistic Tirumanjanam, the ritual itself looks highly insignificant, wasteful and meaningless because the performer of the ritual, the materials with which you perform the ritual, the gods receiving the offerings in the ritual are all manifestations of  Brahman, the only reality. The mantras, if understood, can liberate even without the need to perform the ritual, while the ritual performed mechanically can only lead to deeper bondage.

Well, then, can one have such festivals without the rituals? It’s a tall order. Cultural richness comes with a price tag. Some even say that without religion there would be no culture. There may be some truth in it. The musical compositions of great saints like Tyagaraja were, after all, created in their great moments of ecstatic devotion to their favourite gods. Today, all great musicians rely heavily on Tyagaraja’s musical compositions to lend richness to their concerts.

So, it looks like we owe our rich cultural heritage to our religions. There is no way one can separate the two.

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Published in: on December 19, 2016 at 2:26 pm  Leave a Comment  
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