I suppose this is related in that religion is a factor of every human society, and this blog is about cultural artifacts (Indian films). But mostly this is a question I have been wondering about and I am curious to hear what you, my intelligent and varied and original commentators, think about it.
Do you remember Sita Sings the Blues? Remember how Nina Paley has this epic moment in the middle and again at the end where it turns into abstract images of power and grief and connectedness and all kinds of things? I just watched her follow up film Seder-Masochism about Passover and she has similar sections in that. And then I read her biography and learned she identifies as athiest.
The thing is, to me, she isn’t atheist. Not in the way I define that word. But I am beginning to think that the way I define that word might mean almost no one is atheist, and that makes me curious how other people define it.
For me, atheism means No Belief in a Greater Power. Not a “higher” power, but a “greater” power. If you believe in nature, in humanity, in art, in children, in kindness, in justice, in a pure selfless act, then I don’t think you are atheist. I’m not gonna get into a fight with you about it, you can go ahead and call yourself whatever you want and you are just as right for you as I am right for me. I just found it an interesting realization, that something I had thought was a universal definition actually isn’t.
This is probably because I was raised Unitarian Universalist, which is a hippy-dippy fakola religion that does not require people to believe in God. So my church services as a kid tended to be about “Spirit of Life” and “feel the universe around you” and stuff like that. For me, that’s church. That’s believing in something. So if you can fit within those general terms, you are a churchy person and not an atheist.
I came out of that childhood training with a very firm sense that God exists. As a sort of floaty cloudy generalized force that you can lean on when you feel bad about stuff. So, I don’t believe in God-the-old-man-with-the-beard, or even God-the-human-type-entity-with-thoughts-and-messages-for-humanity-who-is-controlling-us-like-a-puppeteer. Which maybe makes me an atheist by some definitions? My general feeling of “God, force of love and sunshine and really pretty music and that feeling you get in your gut sometimes that everything is gonna be okay” might not pass the restrictions some people set for “do you believe in God?”
I also believe in Jesus. Like, when people stop me on the street occasionally and say “do you know Jesus?” or “do you believe in Jesus?” I absolutely say “yes! I do!” But what I mean by that is that Jesus was a really cool dude who lived about 2 thousand years ago and was touched by God in my definition of “force of love and sunshine” kind of way. But, see, if someone asked me “do you believe in Abraham Lincoln?” I would say “yes! I do!” just as enthusiastically and meaning just the same kind of thing (not so coincidentally, my childhood hippy-dippy church was named after Lincoln. Like, I literally spent more time in church learning about him than learning about Jesus).
How does this relate to Indian films, like, at all? Well, the first time I ran across Indian religions, I really liked the idea of Hinduism as this very inclusive philosophy. There was a little bit of nature worship, a little bit of stories and lessons, a lot of different aspects of Greater Force Human Minds Cannot Conceive so that you could pick and choose what worked for you with an understanding that there was no One aspect of God, since God was unknowable by human minds.
That’s why I feel very comfortable with most of the religious stuff in Indian film. I think a lot of you who were also raised non-Hindu are also comfortable with it? I’m not talking the new stuff, the very specific following the rules kind of stuff the Hindu right is pushing, but the older stuff that was just going to a temple and ringing a bell, or a crowd of people singing together and asking for help from a greater power, or God speaking to a little white dog in order to help the right people marry each other. That, to me, is the universal kind of God, the one who even folks that might identify as atheist can get behind. There is a power in singing together, in ritual, in respecting the oldest pool/tree/rock in the neighborhood.
It’s not just standard Hinduism that has this very open view of God. Sikhism is about following Truth above all, God is Truth. Buddhism is about finding balance within yourself and the universe. There’s no all powerful God Figure pulling the strings that you need to worship and believe. I suppose the most important thing about them, in terms of films, is that they are all personal religions. Most of the rituals and so on are personal rituals, you can have your character follow a certain religion without it affecting their day to day life that much.
So, I guess, I started with “what is atheism?” and I’m ending with “what is religion on film?” For me, the religious scenes in films that have power are the ones that get at that universal concept of a Greater Power. And while films from America have increasingly shied away from those moments, Indian films still include them.