If you asked someone how they were doing around the month of April or May this year, especially in India where the pandemic had ravaged our bodies and souls, you’d observe a pattern.
“I am well, with God’s grace.”
“Hare Krishna, everything is alright.”
“Allah is great, we are all fine.”
“With Waheguru’s blessings, the family is in good health.”
“Thanks be to Mother Mary, we are all okay.”
It was as if Covid had brought God on the tip of our tongues.
In any case, I have always felt very blessed to belong to a land that inspires spirituality everywhere you look.
People are named after gods so you cannot help uttering a few holy names in the course of a usual day. My younger daughter is named after Goddess Durga. My aunt had a housekeeper called Mahesh (another name for Lord Shiva); he drove her to despair but my mother used to joke with her, “At least you call out God’s name a hundred times a day because of him.”
Temples and mosques jut out into even arterial roads every now and then; sometimes, someone puts up a makeshift shrine right in the middle of the footpath with some photos and garlands. Passers-by join their palms reverentially as they walk past.
Cars feature windshield stickers with the names of gods on them. In the evenings, the strains of beautiful bhajans (devotional songs) or Buddhist chants waft into my house from some satsang (prayer meeting) in the building. In the mornings, I sometimes play mantras myself.
Rich and poor men alike worship Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth; I read somewhere that a majority of Indian businesses had names of gods in them. Workplaces will usually have a sacred niche where framed pictures of deities gather flower petals and dispense blessings.
Sometimes, walls along streets will have photos of gods and saints on them, from Krishna to Christ, to dissuade pee-on-the-wall-prone pedestrians of all denominations.
Tattoo artists will usually have a page of various religious symbols to offer customers, right up there next to the skulls and roses. Gift shops have all kinds of Om keychains or carvings. Gods even abound in trendy forms in the malls.
The tikka is ubiquitous on people’s foreheads or a mauli (red holy thread) on wrists – even in offices – fresh from some puja (worship) or the other. Even our very gesture of greeting – the namaste – means “I bow to the Light in you,” and is the same whether used for a god or a human, for hello or goodbye.
With all those symbols, signs and rituals around us, I’m surprised we aren’t all enlightened beings here. I suppose the fish doesn’t know it’s in water until it isn’t. We take our gods for granted, just like the fish does the sea.
But the pandemic woke us up. Confronted with our own mortality, God quickly came back into our vocabulary. The thanks we gave was heartfelt, if only because we’d been forced to the edge.
My journalist husband, an atheist, one day interviewed a contact of mine about her Covid experience, but he didn’t use her quotes in his health article. “There was no story. She only spoke about God,” he explained to me later.
“But that’s the story!” I laughed. “Covid brought us closer to God.”
How long will the effect last? Things are already going back to ‘normal’ – when we assumed we’d live forever, when we considered our health and our loved ones to be our permanent property – and God is once again fading from conversation.
Let us hold these lessons close, lest we are forced to repeat the class.
First published in eShe’s July-August 2021 issue