How atheism brought me serenity

When a woman questions about religion, culture or spirituality, she is instantly judged. It is seen as an unforgivable act and society comes to the conclusion that she lacks morals. I’m curious, and I want everyone to answer this question not from your mind but from your heart or gut. How many of you are genuinely religious and how many of you simply ride along because of pressure from parents, in-laws, grandparents or generally the wider community? Everybody is entitled to their own views, so by no means, am I trying to say atheism is the way forward and let’s all abandon religion. That’s not my point. However, nobody has the right to force us into something we don’t actually believe in. Yes? Isn’t that a basic human right? 

Let me take everyone through the order of events a Hindu typically experiences in their lifetime. These may or may not resemble rituals from other communities/religions but I am just putting forth what I am familiar with.

  • Naming ritual
  • Longevity and good health ritual 
  • First birthday ritual 
  • Ear piercing ritual 
  • Head hair shaving ritual 
  • Coming of age ritual
  • Pre-wedding rituals 
  • Marriage rituals
  • Baby shower ritual 
  • House warming ritual
  • 60th and 80th birthday rituals (men’s birthdays only)
  • Funeral ritual

Coming from a traditional Hindu family, I have experienced nearly every single one of those rituals myself. When I was a little girl, I never used to think deep into the meaning behind any such practices. I simply followed my parents, who followed their parents. However, as time went by, I began to question why we did certain things. Unfortunately, nobody would give me a satisfactory answer. I would get told “that’s what everybody has been doing for hundreds of years.” Whatever problem emerged, the instant response would be “let’s do a pooja” (pooja means ritual) and God will take care of the rest. However, too many life experiences have made me realise that religion has added no value to my life and most certainly, has not brought any positivity. In fact, in my case, it brought me a lot of mental trauma and very little peace. 

Let me expand a little further on some of the rituals above and emphasise on the double standards that exist within each one.

One ritual that I find deeply disturbing is “Sumangali Prarthanai” (Sumangali means married woman). A pre-wedding ritual that is organised by married women, who gather together and pray for good-health and peace. Here comes the most bizarre part. They also pray to die before their husbands, so that they can eternally carry their “sumangali” status with them. I still remember the sombre feeling it created in my mind before my wedding. Sadly, I had no control of it, even though it was MY weddingWhy would any woman wish to die before her husband? Is it really an achievement in life? Are men that much more superior than women, that even when it comes to death, it’s preferred for men to live longer? How damaging is this for women’s mental health? Moreover, this is also one of the most discriminating rituals in my community. Not only is it organised by married women, but ONLY married women are invited to participate in it. What about divorced or widowed women? Are their lives not as important? Marriage should not be what gives women an identity and superiority in society. Every woman’s individuality must be respected and celebrated, regardless of their marital status. 

Let’s not forget about Ritushuddhi, a coming of age ceremony for girls after they get their first menstruation. A ritual to celebrate the transformation of a young girl into a fertile woman. However, the same community/culture discriminates against menstruating women from entering temples. Hypocrisy at its best! Menstruating women are isolated from the kitchen, prayer room, told to sit as far away as possible from the dining area during meals and generally, treated as untouchables for those few days. Menstruating women are not allowed to participate in any religious gatherings. I have seen women in my own family discuss taking contraceptives, in order to delay their period for these occasions. Wait! Hold on! If contraception is accepted for religious reasons, why are women shamed when it’s used for birth control? 

What is the point of having an Upanayanam function (coming of age, sacred thread ceremony for boys)? The sacred thread is called “Poonal.” A highly irrelevant ritual that does not align with this current century. Truthfully speaking, men who wear the poonal should undergo vedic education, chant the gayatri mantra three times a day and follow a teetotal lifestyle. However, the majority of men who wear the poonal in this day and age, work in the corporate world. Naturally, they are too busy to carry out daily prayers. A significant proportion of them even consume tobacco, alcohol and meat. Now, I’m nobody to judge whether that is right or wrong. However, my point is, for a boy who does not wish to go down the Vedic path, carrying out an Upanayanam function is an utter waste of money and time. Moreover, I can’t refrain from highlighting the double standards here too. If it’s not ok for menstruating women to enter temples, how is it ok for men wearing the poonal to smoke or drink but still participate in all rituals? So a body which takes in carcinogens is still considered pure but a body which releases menstrual blood is classed as impure? Does society realise that without menstruation there wouldn’t exist a human race in the first place?

Let’s take Seemantham for instance, a baby shower ritual that’s performed for the wellbeing of the mother and the baby. I can take my own mother as an example. Despite her Seemantham when she was pregnant with me, she was diagnosed with severe postnatal rheumatoid arthritis. In the end, it wasn’t religious practices or temple trips that cured her. It was high dose anti-inflammatory steroids. What about all the women who go through gestational diabetes, postnatal depression, stillbirths, etc? How do we explain all of that despite religious practices?    

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Many of you will have attended a Sashtiapthapoorthi or Sathabhishekam (60th and 80th birthday celebration of a man). Two very grand affairs to celebrate a man’s milestones, when in reality, it’s his wife who should be celebrated for putting up with a life exactly how we see it in the “The Great Indian Kitchen.” A movie which resonates with the hearts of many women deeply wounded by patriarchy. To this day, I haven’t seen any birthday celebrations being held for my grandmothers.  

Does performing an Ayusha Homam (longevity and good health ritual) really make us live up to the age of 100, especially without any age-related chronic conditions? My mother had an Ayusha Homam done when she was a baby. Can anybody tell me why she was diagnosed with a horrific incurable auto-immune condition at the age of just 52? Could the ritual correct her genetics? There are alcoholics and chain smokers who live up to the age of 90 and equally, we hear about cancer, cardiac arrest, stroke, genetic disorders, etc, in young individuals. So no, rituals do not cure health problems. 

In Hinduism, it is believed that the departed soul (a term which I really hate) joins the rest of the ancestors. A concept that does not align with my personal beliefs. I’m not someone who believes death is an end. For me, it’s just a transition of state, from physical to spiritual. Let’s look at this logically and here, I can take my own mother’s soul as an example. Would she prefer for her soul to be with a group of unknown ancestors or to remain with her loved ones (me, my brother and my father)? I begged and pleaded for rituals not to be done and for a priest not to be brought home. Guess what? The exact opposite happened. Nobody listened to me despite me being the eldest child to my mother. That day, all the decisions were being made by men. MY VOICE WAS UNHEARD because I WAS A DAUGHTER. MY VOICE WAS UNHEARD because I WAS A WOMAN and especially because, I was married and “apparently” belonged to a different family. It was that moment, I waved goodbye to religion, ONCE AND FOR ALL

Firstly, religion was not as simple as I thought. As soon as I became old enough to understand our social fabric, I realised that deep-rooted patriarchy was the core driver of most religious practices. I felt like I was being part of a cult that did not respect women’s mental health. Furthermore, most rituals are highly irrelevant in this current day and age and nobody wants to admit it. Everything is about pleasing the community and displaying pride by putting on a show. Sorry, but I do not want to spend my life being a people pleaser. I want my life to be driven by facts and logic, not superstition and stupidity. 

Secondly, religion, culture and spirituality should be treated as completely separate entities, because as a matter of fact, they are! A woman can still be cultured, without being religious. A woman can still be spiritual, without being religious. I’m definitely a very spiritual person but my spirituality is not centered around God. For me, it’s about being devoted to my parents (they are my life, my world, my creators), being committed to my marriage, hard-work and determination in my career, charity work and finally through my hobbies like dancing and writing. It’s been over one year since I last stepped into a temple. I have removed all the religious idols and ornaments inside my house. I feel happy, at peace, and content with life, more than ever before. As I conclude, I would like to reiterate that I am not against God and those who believe in God. All I am saying is, it is a basic human right, to believe and practice what makes our inner self happy. 

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About the Author

Dr Shalini Moorthy

I'm Dr Shalini Moorthy. I was born in Chennai, India. I moved to the United Kingdom during my childhood as a first generation immigrant with my parents. I finished my PhD in 2019 in read more...

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