There I was – an atheist in a temple. By choice.
It was an unusually cold Mumbai morning and I had to be present at our organisation’s gathering marking the 59th anniversary of our nation declaring its sovereignty to the world. It turned out to be a day of learning; in more ways than one.
After the collective trip down memory lane and the reaffirmation of our patriotic credentials, our rendering of our National Anthem that surely made poor Gurudev turn in the proverbial grave, we had a wonderful Mumbai morning all to ourselves. Believe me that is an unheard of treat in Mumbai. A full day of leisure!
We were miles from home, the weather was lovely and we had time on our hands! I talked my husband, another atheist, to walk into a nearby temple. I had no idea which deity was reigning those holy precincts. I was curious and my husband was game, so in we walked.
It was one of the cleanest and least noisy temples I have ever been in. Having been brought up a Hindu, I must’ve followed my parents or have been cajoled, coaxed, or forced by them into countless temples. This definitely was the cleanest.
The garba-griha was dedicated to a beautifully sculpted and bejeweled idol. So, it was a goddess. And a devotee’s hymn informed me that the idol was that of Kamakshi Devi. The sonorous voice, dripping devotion was singing, “Kamakshi Kamkoti Vasini…” Come to think of it the song or that line of the song is ridiculous. Well, the town Kamakoti is named after the goddess Kamakshi. The place acquired its name due to the legend that it is the abode of Devi Kamakshi on Earth. What does the hymn maker mean by telling the goddess that she resides in Kamakoti?
But of course, all this is an afterthought. At that time, the only thing we, a pair of atheists, did was listen to her, awestruck. Not only was she an amazing singer but also a true bhakta. After so many years of witnessing and participating in hundreds of religious rituals, I can safely say that I have never heard that kind of true devotion in anyone’s voice. At that moment, for that lady, there was just her expression of devotion and the Goddess. She was oblivious to all else.
The minute she had sung her hymn she switched into the normal mode of going through the right motions within a temple. This includes bowing in front of the deity, dipping one’s ring finger into bowls of kumkum and vibhuti and applying these to one’s forehead.
We followed her and her family out of the garbha-griha and saw them gather together for a photograph. She was a tourist! Not a regular at this temple! Who would have believed that? She was so comfortable in the sanctum sanctorum! She was not intimidated by the unfamiliarity of the surroundings or the new faces standing cheek by jowl. It was as if neither the strangers around her nor the unfamiliar surroundings mattered. All that counted was the Goddess and her devotion for the Goddess. It was like watching Pandit Ravi Shankar with his sitar. Or Guru Kelu Charan Mahapatra dancing. In those moments nothing exists for them except their emotion. They don’t perform. They transform into their emotion. So did this stranger in a kanjeevaram saree in a Mumbai temple become the hymn she sang.
It occurred to me that I go to concerts and recitals for this. To witness this transformation. Of a human being into an expression of emotion. To be there when someone experiences that slippery moment of being completely connected with one’s emotion.