For many years, I have been chanting mantras from Hindu scriptures, 108 times at one go, each time offering ghee with a teaspoon to the tamed fire in an earthen pot, water kept in a bronze vessel by the pot, incense spreading Jasmine fragrance, a bundle of red string to tie on the wrists of those who participate, and apply tikka in the middle of forehead—where the third eye would be—to connect to be the energy center of the body. The usual term for this ceremony is havan.
I perform havan to assert that I don't need mediation of another human being—a Brahmin or a sage—in my liaison with the God or the godly. I do it on a monthly basis. It's ritualistic, may seem religious, but to me it has always been an exercise for spiritual wellbeing. The vibrations created by loud chanting does good to me, quells the unrest in me, albeit temporarily.
I have been hosting expatriates for last five years as paying guests from all over the world. They hate being addressed as expats, they feel alienated. They have stayed with me from a couple of months to nearly a year—come as perfect strangers and become the greatest of friends. Some of them are my acquired brothers. A 20-year-old Frenchman, Vincent, is my current and the fourteenth flat-mate. He's refused to participate in havan because he's " a Christian." But he is a notable exception.
Initially, before performing a havan, I would inform my flat-mates that I am going to chant rather loudly—lest run the risk of being considered deranged. Some of them witnessed me perform havan, were fascinated, expressed their willingness to participate. They would wear their newly acquired kurta-pajama and join me. Their eyes were wet, not necessarily swelled by emotions, but because of smoke caused by the fire that fills our house like morning mist descends a valley. I insist—they have their doubts—that smoke purifies everything that it comes in contact with.
Havan made sense to my flat-mates for all the non-religious reasons: some are fascinated because of its rich cultural context, or it being an age old practice. Some like it because it tantalizes their spiritual undercurrents, or is a nice gesture, or breaks from the mundane day-to-day living. My advice is: don't get bogged down by thinking what it represents, but be acutely aware of what it means.
I spend the first five minutes translating the mantra with the qualification that it's not a religious encounter but a spiritual odyssey. My favourite is the Gayatri Mantra. The message is simple and clear: all positive energies of the cosmos come and guide me. Just guide me, and not make me richer, taller, powerful, younger or sexier. Metaphor for positivity is light and negativity is darkness, I tell them. They are asked to imagine themselves as a luminous body, bright as a sun, emitting positivity, floodlighting every aspect of their being. Like darkness is nothing but absence of light, similar is negativity. So instead of confronting darkness, one should just light a lamp.
It made perfect sense to Jan Peters, a German environmentalist, an Evangelical-Lutheran Christian by birth. He is a non-religious young man who has faith in reason. He came to India for work, stayed with me for six months three years ago, and had a vague impression of Hinduism as "a cartoon-like religion." Havan got him thinking. It was radically different to anything he had ever experienced before. "It touched me and my soul," he says and considers havan a "very intimate spiritual experience that made me understand what Hindu culture (not religion) is all about. Over the years, whenever and wherever we meet—India or in Germany or anywhere else—it's a great ritual (we perform) to find our inner balance and to celebrate our friendship."
My Finnish flat-mate Paavo Yliluoma is an atheist and a naturalist, likes havan, or other such rituals, that involves participation of near and dear ones, like Christmas, without necessarily believing in it. It helps him look inwards. He never misses to draw a parallel between humans and their ancestors—monkeys. "Humans are gregarious animals," he says and "rituals bind us into a cohesive group. We have psychological need to believe in something because it gives us hope and simple answers to understand the complicated world we live in."
I performed havan at his parents' home in Raudaskyla in western Finland. The venue was under a shed that is usually used to park a car. I am positive: this was an experience as exotic to them as me sitting naked in the family sauna with him and his father.
Arthur Dudney is an American flat-mate of mine— a fellow at the Oxford University, a linguist of repute. He has always been a willing participant. I often accuse him of being more Indian than I am. He offends me by taking it as a compliment. The choices he has made in life would vex bigots who believe culture is something monolith, religion their fiefdom and humans a herd of cattle meant to be lead. He finds religious symbols like havan "moving" and an example of "historical openness" that to him has "faded in recent years (in India) under the influence of fanatics and vote-bank-backed politicians." He feels honoured to be a Hindu for half-an-hour during the ceremony. "I certainly don't think that it compromises my belonging to another religious community," he clarifies; quite the contrary, it "makes me think about the wonderful power of language in the Hindu tradition."
I tie the red-thread around the right wrist as a token of participation and appreciation. It's no different from a wristband tied when one participates in a music festival in Europe. I was thrilled to see my flat-mate Johannes Lundershausen —a brainy German pursing Phd in Tübingen —wearing a worn- out thread even after a year of performing havan when I met him in Germany last summer. This was despite having confessed to me in plain words that he wasn't enchanted by the experience. We performed havan again inside his room; instead of lighting the fire, we lit a candle. I have a feeling he indulges in it to make me happy.
It frustrates me to no end when I think that one is required to acquire a certain identity to do certain things particular to that identity—it's not just true about religion, but also for ideology, polity, race and sexuality and many other aspects of existence in the social domain. Why do I have to be a Hindu to participate in Havan? Or why can't a Hindu fast on Ramadan and enjoy Iftar and Suhoor without being dubbed a derelict? The most fascinating buildings in Europe are churches, I like to attend the Mass, but do I cease to be a Hindu?