Answering questions raised by the latest Bollywood movie

Are rituals wrong numbers to God?

They can be, but what is the solution?
When we come to know that the number we are dialing is wrong, we seek the right number by consulting the appropriate authoritative book, the phone directory.

Similarly, we can find the right rituals by referring to the appropriate authoritative book, scripture. Scripture offers us much more than does a directory. By studying scripture, we can understand much more than just which ritual to perform – we can understand why to perform it and how it works.

GK for PK

When people don’t have scriptural knowledge, they can’t differentiate between proper rituals that actually connect them with God and improper rituals that have come up by concoction and become established as convention. That is, they can’t understand the difference between the right number and the wrong number. As such a state of affairs is widespread in today’s society, there’s an urgent need for systematic scriptural education.

But if instead we indulge, as does PK, in simplistic denunciation of all rituals based on naïve caricatures of some rituals, then that’s like rejecting all numbers as wrong because some numbers don’t work. Such caricature-centered derision of rituals is the surest way of keeping people perpetually disconnected from God, for it’s like telling people to never dial again for the fear of dialing a wrong number.

Can we reject as wrong numbers the rituals that don’t make sense?

Evaluating the validity of rituals based on their sensibility seems like a sound criterion, but is it really?
Let’s consider three factors:

1. Are we ready to reject all rituals that don’t make sense?

2. Is making sense the essence of rituals?

3. Are we mature enough to properly evaluate the value of rituals?

1. Are we ready to reject all rituals that don’t make sense?

Let’s consider the ritual of blowing candles during birthday celebrations. What is the sense in blowing candles? And what is the sense in blowing as many candles as the age of the birthday celebrant? If we investigate the history of this ritual, we find that it originated in a medieval European superstition that people were haunted by as many evil spirits as was their age; and with each candle that was extinguished, one spirit would be driven out. Makes terrific sense, doesn’t it? If all senseless rituals are to be rejected, then why make a caricature of religious rituals alone? Why not make a caricature of the birthday ritual of blowing candles? Stopping that ritual might even promote hygiene – it will save participants from consuming the birthday celebrant’s saliva droplets that may fall on the cake while blowing the candles.

2. Is making sense the essence of rituals?

Rituals provide standardized templates to guide us towards emotions and actions appropriate for specific situations. Consider for example the ritual of shaking hands when we meet someone. From a strictly logical point of view, there’s no sense in this ritual – whatever is to be done in the subsequent meeting could well be done without an initial handshake. But the ritual of shaking hands when done properly sets a positive, warm emotional tone for the meeting.

Tribals living in forests whose greeting ritual is a nod or a handwave from a safe distance may well consider the physical proximity required for a handshake a threatening intrusion into their personal space. We moderns on the other hand may consider the tribals’ refusal to shake hands as a sign of their rudeness. Both arrive at wrong inferences because the rituals come from different frames of reference, frames within which the essence of rituals is not making sense but experiencing and conveying emotions. To unsympathetic observers who can’t or don’t want to experience those emotions, those rituals may make no sense even when they retain their validity for the ritualperformers.

3. Are we mature enough to properly evaluate the value of rituals?

Say a child’s foot has been cut by a nail. When a doctor checks the wound, that doctor gives a preventive anti-tetanus injection. It makes no sense to the child: “I have pain in my foot and this doctor who is supposed to remove that pain is instead causing pain in one more place – the thigh.” The child doesn’t have the sense to make sense of the injection, but those who have more sense – the parents – will gently but firmly persuade the child to take the injection. And as the child grows up and understands how medicines work, then the child too will be able to make sense of what had earlier seemed like nonsense.

Similarly, we may feel that some rituals are insensible, but the problem may well be with us, not with the rituals – we may not be mature enough to understand their value, even when the rituals are deeply meaningful.

Why do religious teachers stereotype people as when they pronounce all Pakistanis as cheaters?

Such stereotyping is definitely undesirable, but then why does PK stereotype all religious teachers by depicting them in just one color – black. If there are shades among Pakistanis, aren’t there shades among religious teachers? The popular media frequently portrays religious teachers as manipulators and mercenaries out to profit from people’s faith and fear. And PK by depicting only that kind of religious teachers simply perpetuates that stereotype. If stereotyping all Pakistanis as cheaters is simplistic and misleading, then isn’t stereotyping all religious teachers as cheaters also simplistic and misleading?

Someone might argue, “But those are the kind of religious teachers who are most popular and influential. So it’s only right and educational that PK depicts them.”

Won’t that argument apply to Pakistanis too? The common Pakistani people may not have any strong anti-India prejudice, but they don’t determine Pakistan’s policies towards India. Those policies are determined by Pakistan’s political and martial leaders – both of whom usually find it convenient to keep anti- India sentiments high among Pakistanis because blaming India for Pakistan’s problems helps deflect attention from their own ineptness. So if Indians are to be educated, then they should be educated about the dangerous mindsets of such influential Pakistanis also, not just about uninfluential Pakistani Romeos pining for Indian Juliets.

Further, if PK truly wanted to educate people about India’s religious landscape, it could have highlighted or at least depicted the sincere religious teachers who unselfishly serve God and humanity. Then people could have endeavored to find and follow such teachers, thereby staying protected from the harmful influence of self-serving teachers.

But depicting such complexity isn’t easy and it isn’t entertaining. Much easier to paint all religious teachers as black, make fun of them and make big money out of it. PK’s purpose is not educational – it’s simply commercial. PK accuses religious teachers of making a business of faith. Though not all religious teachers do such business, PK itself surely does that. It makes a business of faith, just from the opposite side – not by promoting faith, but by bashing faith. Agar dharma-guru shraddhaa ka dhanda kar rahe hain, to PK dharma ki ninda ka dhanda kar raha hain.
And if PK had bothered to find some authentic religious teachers, it would have discovered that they see everyone with equal vision, as the Bhagavad-gita (05.18) describes. They see that beyond our different bodily shells the spiritual substance that animates all of us is similar. Accordingly, they teach that all living beings, whatever their nationality, religion or race, are all beloved parts of God. So authentic religious teachers, far from stereotyping others, provide the spiritual vision by which people can rise beyond such stereotyping.

Do people who are afraid go to temples?

Could be, but then people who are afraid go to watch PK too. Many people who watch movies seek relief from worry, stress, and tension – all fear by other names. If an activity is to be stopped just because it is done out of fear, then watching PK should also be stopped. Just as people watch movies for many reasons other than fear, people go to temples for many reasons other than fear – reasons that we will discuss in the next answer. Let’s focus on the fear motive here.

The simple undeniable fact about life is that so many things can go wrong at any moment. Such uncertainties naturally worry us. Different people deal with this fear in different ways: for example, by drinking, watching movies or going to temples.

Rather than parodying an activity based on its motive, we need to evaluate it based on its utility, that is, based on whether it serves its purpose.

Does watching movies help people deal with their fears? Not really, except that it helps them forget their fears for a few hours.

Does going to temples help people deal with their fears? At the very least, it offers people what a movie offers – relief from fear. The serene, spiritually vibrant atmosphere of the temple brings peace to people’s minds and hearts, thus helping them forget their worries.

But for the devout going to temples offers so much more. People pray for solutions to their problems and sometimes they do get solutions – not necessarily through a miraculous intervention, but through the arrival in their mind of positive ideas, insights and inspirations. Even if their specific problem is not solved, still the very act of going to the temple and praying often makes them feel reassured. When we share our heart’s anxieties with a loved one, even if that person doesn’t offer any solutions, still the very act of sharing makes us feel lighter, unburdened, strengthened. Similar is the enlivening effect of going to a temple and praying to God. Such enlivenment empowers them to perform better, thereby contributing towards solving the problem.

Some skeptical people might consider such enlivenment illusory. Does that give them the right to ridicule religious people’s beliefs? What happened to democracy and the right of all people to their beliefs?

A famous cricketer believed that placing a red handkerchief in his pocket helped him perform better; a batsman believed that kissing his bat each time before facing the bowler improved his batting. If we don’t lampoon such superstitious idiosyncrasies, then why do we consider it fair game to lampoon something – going to temples – that has offered relief and strength to millions for millennia?

Is it cowardice to go to God out of fear?

It is no more cowardice than is a small child’s going to parents out of fear. But just as the child is meant to outgrow the fear, so too are religious people meant to grow up spiritually and outgrow the fear motive for going to God.

There are four broad levels at which people approach God: fear, desire, duty and love.
1. Fear: People who are afraid of life’s problems go to God out of fear. Such fear is a good beginning in one’s relationship with God, just as children need to have some healthy fear of their parents. That fear checks their unruliness and fosters discipline in them, thereby preparing them for a bright future career. Similarly fear of God helps instill basic morality in people. But just as children are not meant to live lifelong in fear of their parents, but are meant to develop higher emotions such as love, so too are we meant to grow in our relationship with God from fear towards love.
2. Desire: When people want things that are difficult for them to get by their own efforts alone, they go to God out of desire. This is one step higher because their conception of God is not negative as a discipliner but positive as a potent desire-fulfiller. But still their relationship with him is utilitarian, based on give-and-take rather than love.
3. Duty: Some people understand that God has already given me so much – life, body, health, food, clothing, shelter. So they feel dutybound to go periodically to his temple for thanking him. Here the relationship is based on gratitude for what has already been given and not on desire for what one wants to receive. So the relationship is steadier. However, duty can over time become a burden. Moreover, the focus in this level is still on what God has done for me, not on God himself.
4. Love: This is the purest level of approaching God, where people understand that God is their supreme object of love and they find the supreme fulfillment in loving and serving him. At this level, we see all living beings as members of the same one family of God. Thus love for God blossoms into love for all living beings. The purpose of religion is to help people rise from the level of fear to the level of love. To that end, temples should have educational forums where people can learn about this progression and raise themselves accordingly. PK goes about caricaturing temple-goers as fearful ninnies and thereby discourages many people from getting the relief and strength available through temples. If instead it had guided people to rise to the level of love for God, it could have done far greater service to society Are there two gods: the god who created man and the god whom man created? Why only two? Why not thousands? Yes, it is true that man has concocted notions of God. But if we were to count such concoctions, then there would be not two gods but thousands of gods, because thousands of people have come up with their own myriad notions of god. PK says that we don’t know anything about the God who made man. The how do we know that this God is different from the god whom man created? If we don’t know anything about the real currency note, how can we say that the currency note in front of us is false? To say that the God who created man is not the god whom man created implies having some knowledge about that God. If we don’t have any knowledge about God, then how can we say what god is not?

More incoherently, PK says that he has faith in the God who made man. But if he doesn’t know anything about this God, then on what basis does he believe in him? Might his faith be blind? Or might the differentiation between the two Gods be a subtle and sinister tool to make people stop doing all practical acts of worshiping God, while giving them a pseudoassurance that they haven’t become atheists because they worship some unknowable true God?

To authentically know what God is and to differentiate between him and man’s concoctions about God, we need to not stop doing rituals but start studying scripture, the authoritative books about God. Such study will protect us not only from the pitfall of blind faith that PK depicts but also the pitfall that PK pushes us into – blind faithlessness.

Caitanya Carana Dasa is the associate-editor of Back to Godhead (US and Indian editions). To subscribe for his daily Bhagavad-gita reflections, please subscribe for Gitadaily on his website,