I love history. More archaeology than history, but some of that is mere semantics to the uninitiated in the subject. Like me.
A lot of my love for history probably stems from the wonderful storyteller-teachers I had, in school. But, by the time I came across the first Indiana Jones movie, I was already in love with nuts and bolts. So, there was no turning back. But, I have often wondered what it would have been like -- to be an archaeologist. Being in the elements for days, with a shovel and a brush in hand, and sometimes, yelling at the workmen in the pits. To be extra careful, with that new mummy they found.
Recently, I came across a wonderful book by Abraham Eraly, called 'The Mughal World: Life in India's Last Golden Age'. It is one of those books that you can open at any page, and still, come out happy after a few pages. Happy, that you learned something new. And so, I was recently happy, that in spite of all the history that I learned from my wonderful teachers, I learned something that I did not know about. That the Mughal emperor, Jehangir, could actually have been an atheist!
Jehangir, is probably the least known Mughal emperor of India. He pales in comparison to his illustrious father, Akbar the great, and his son Shah Jehan, who built the Taj Mahal. And, as the history books say, he spent most of his time drinking and womanizing, and so, did not really have much time for the matters of state. But, his thinking was probably influenced by that of his secular father, and so, he took it a step further. He tried to decouple religion from the state -- unless, the mix gave him a moral authority to rule. And, on one occasion, he had quite the conversation with a European missionary, who writes, "..and he said that if you throw the cross and the holy book into the fire, and they are not consumed by it...I will become a Christian.The emperor of India is an atheist!"
I sat up when I read those lines, because, once, I had used exactly the same words with someone, who was trying to get me to accept his religion. And, at that time, I was experimenting with the religion of those, who did not have a religion -- atheism. It is not really a strange thing for most scientists and engineers, to have fiddled with atheism, at some stage or the other in their lives. Our training, conditions us to ask questions, and only believe the things that can be proven with experiments. And so, as a neo-atheist, when someone tried to browbeat me with the fire-and-brimstone speech, I had used the exact same words, that Jehangir had used. To test the might of God, and his religion.
I was recently reading a news story about how many of the young people in today's world are turning atheistic. The article attributed this turn of philosophy to education and rationalistic thought, which is now strong enough to counteract years of upbringing -- sometimes, in extremely conservative and religious environments.
But, what the article forgot to talk about, was the fact, that by default, most young people are willing to challenge the status-quo, even if the challenged entity -- is God. So, when I was eighteen, I too was an atheist. And even now, sometimes, the temptation is very high. To be an atheist -- and sometimes -- to be eighteen.
Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to have traveled the path of polytheism and monotheism, agnosticism and atheism, and now, my bus seems to have halted in the town of spiritualism, for a few years. Most of my spiritual base is around the philosophy of Shaivism, which usually preaches the path of monotheism and self-realization. Through contemplation and meditation.
I do not believe in Gurus, but sometimes, one comes across absolute pearls of wisdom from the spiritual masters out there. Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev, one such spiritual master, had once made an amazing statement during the festival of Shivaratri -- about Shiva:
"The word Shiva literally means that which is not. That which is, is existence; that which is, is creation. That which is not is Shiva. If you open your eyes and look around, if your vision is for small things, you will see lots of creation. But if your vision is really looking for big things, you will see that the biggest presence in existence is a vast emptiness ...... The only thing that can truly be all-pervading is darkness -- nothingness or emptiness .... Don't pass tonight without knowing at least a moment of the vastness of the emptiness that we call Shiva."
Once, as a teenager, I was aimlessly wandering around the banks of the river Ganges, in the holy city of Haridwar. I came across a Sadhu, sitting on the riverbank, and smoking pot from his chillum. I was brave enough to approach him and ask a question, that was plaguing me for quite some time, as I was experimenting with atheism. With his permission, I asked, "Babaji, mere man mein ishwar ki jagah khaali hai, main kiski puja karoon? (Holy father, the place for God in my mind, is empty. Who should I worship?)"
The sadhu took a long drag from his chillum. Then, he looked at me for a few seconds with his blood red eyes. And then, in a thundering voice, he said, "To phir beta, khaali ki puja kar. Bada mazza ayega! (Then son, worship the emptiness. You will like it a lot!) ".