One of the most boring times I can recall from my childhood is when I had to sit through lengthy pujas, ceremonies and kathas. This is not at all to say that I had no faith in my religion. Far from it, I have always been a devout Hindu in my own way. The boredom from lengthy religious ceremonies is inevitable, and virtually every young Hindu I have known, has felt the same way.
The reason is simple; most of us cannot understand what is going on, and no effort is made by the priest or priestess to communicate the meanings. So the whole experience ends up negative. Most Hindus make an effort to try and follow the process, or to concentrate on God in our own way. But as the minutes turn into hours it becomes more and more difficult.
The problem is compounded by the behaviour of some of the priests. Many ask for massive amounts of cash. It sometimes seems as if they themselves don’t really know what they are doing but are just taking all of us for a ride and getting paid in the process. This may sound a bit harsh, and of course there are many pandits who are not like this. But many Hindus I have spoken to have related similar bad experiences, leading me to suspect that such dodgy pandits are far from uncommon.
Fortunately for me, I knew other aspects of Hinduism which were simpler and more practical, and therefore no matter if I found it boring to sit through religious ceremonies, and that sometimes the behaviour of the priests was off-putting, it never effected the way I related to Hinduism as a whole. Quite to the contrary, I knew that Hinduism was great and pure, and that these ceremonies themselves had deep and profound meanings – but that the problem was that we were not being explained anything about these meanings.
Imagine what many young Hindus who do not know much about Hinduism feel when they sit through such ceremonies. To many, being forced to sit through lengthy pujas and kathas that they don’t understand serves to make them feel estranged from Hinduism itself, because they associate Hinduism simply with rituals which they don’t understand.
What is the solution? I think that is of utmost importance that all Hindu religious ceremonies should have sections explained to the audience in a way that they can understand and relate to. In this way, the ceremonies can actually engage young audiences and instill understanding in them. In Britain, this will inevitably mean having some English commentary accompanying the Sanskrit component. It has to be acknowledged that no spiritual benefit can occur to a crowd of people sitting listening to a priest chanting unless the people have a feeling of devotion and concentration towards what is being chanted or spoken by the priest. And this feeling can only come about through understanding. And understanding, in this context, can only come about through some degree of explanation, in English.
If this change is incorporated, I thing we will find that young Hindus will be much more positive towards attending religious functions and ceremonies. In my experience, most Hindus are curious and want to learn about Hinduism, but do not have the avenues to satisfy their search. If ceremonies, pujas, kathas etc were conducted in the right way, people would look forward to them as a way to really learn something about their religion.
All Hindu ceremonies in Britain should follow this kind of model, including those associated with the major junctures in life, such as birth, marriage and death. It would provide a huge service to our religion and community. All Hindus need to work to create a system where this can become the reality. Hindu organisations should provide funds to support such work. And more young Hindus should involve themselves in shaping the way our religion is communicated and put across.
A young doctor, Milan Shah, provides an excellent example of this work. From his own learning Milan acquired the skills and knowledge to conduct pujas. He has performed simplified pujas, for festivals such as Shivratri, at many London universities He incorporates commentary and explanation for each of the steps, and even a little (tasteful) humour along the way. There is also a take-home leaflet for everyone, with explanations and other stuff. The result is that almost everyone leaves the puja commenting about how excellent it was and that they have never been to anything quite like it. Most attendants also said that they would love to go to future pujas conducted by Milan. People genuinely feel refreshed and relaxed after the puja is over, and hence the spiritual benefit is much greater than sitting in boredom, which let’s face it, never does anybody any good.
(Note: although this article was written in a UK context, it has relevance to Hindus everywhere)