During a puja today, I was asked to hold a bundle of straw to my heart while pouring oil into a contained fire. The reasoning behind this was that a long time ago, rakshasa would interrupt the prayer, called a havan. So warriors kept watch with swords clutched close to their chest. Now, since swords were a strict no-no, the clutch of straw was held on as symbolism. In the same way god was a stone I poured rice on for food offerings, and he was fed water poured from a spoon. Later the same procedure was used to bathe him.
During these ceremonies, I'm always somewhere else. Today I wondered if this is one reason why symbolism seems to be prevalent in India - because it is in religion. A few months ago, a friend in Tamil Nadu very gently asked if I had enjoyed the food at a stopover to a village. We were at a table, our banana leaves folded after a filling meal, and her interest seemed more than casual.
"Yes, I did."
"Then you need to fold the banana leaf the other way. Towards you." By folding it away, you tell the proprieter that you did not like his service, and chances are you would not return. But folding it towards you meant acceptance. Sometimes, she said, the same method is used when a boy visits a prospective girl for marriage. One could make a career of studying these nuances.
But what does one feel towards tradition or religion when everything is done by rote? Passion? Unlikely. A following? Perhaps. But perhaps people question why and find answers in things that might not really be there. But symbolism can be interesting; seeing how a mammoth task has been abbreviated to something manageable; to something that can be completed in 90 minutes. Instead of having one brahmin who chants 120,000 times, we can have six who chant 20,000 times each. How convenient it can be. All the benfits of religion, with a fraction of the trappings.
The more I watch religion, the less I wonder about god, and more about the people who wrote these books.