"I heard that there is a river where the dead people's ashes are taken to?"
"It is not necessarily one river, any river will do. But true, people's ashes are taken to a nearby river. And there is one river which is very popular destination for this, called Ganga. Now it has become very dirty since it is being used for several purposes which pollute it."
"The eldest son gets the head shaved if any of the parents die?"
"He is also usually the one who lights the pyre."
I wanted to avoid these scattered questions as they would not leave a fair impression of such practices, so I tried to steer the conversation the other way round. I said, "I hear, and actually see in person, that not many people claim religion in here."
"Yeah, there are too many must-dos that at the end it becomes an overhead. And many selfish changes have been made to the actual set of principles which many cannot find peace with."
"As a Hindu, what are the things you should do?"
"None in particular. I choose what I do."
"Come on, how can it be? There should be something.. right? Like going to temple etc?"
At this point, there are innumerable things running through my head. But what appeared important for me is the way in which a person interprets something: a concept, a theory, a person, history.. anything. So, I just put before her what I think of Hinduism, "Well, I do not see Hinduism as a religion in the first place. It is something which allows a person to choose a way of life, by which I mean to say there are plenty of ways you can choose from. Further, there is no central authority over the religion, like the Pope for example. However, it is true that many superstitions have crept in, mainly because of selfish motivations like you just mentioned, and false saints. Nevertheless, as people are getting educated, things are changing."
"I did not understand, this looks complex and different to what I hear of a religion."
"To you and probably many others, it probably will take some time before you can digest this idea. Hinduism does not lay a set of priciples asking one to follow them. It just has a number of stories which are nothing but the words of wisdom taught in an interesting manner. Two such huge volumes are today extremely popular and almost every person gets to read/hear them. From what I understand of them, they calm the animal side while nurturing the human side of us."
She still looks perplexed, and has no idea, not even remote, of what I've been speaking about. I continued explaining my 'interpretation', "Ok, Let me first draw a canvas and then tell you a small story from one of those volumes that I just mentioned. That way you get a feel of it. Hindus believe that there are four periods in the life cycle of eternity which come and go one after the other. The first of them is where everything that exists is righteous and good, the following three see a gradual decline in good, with the fourth being the worst of all. We are right there!"
She nods and smiles to that last point, saying "Definitely looks like!!".
"In the third period, where the good ones still had a decent say, there were two kings. One king had 100 sons, bad ones. The other had 5 sons, good ones. These two groups had a common distant relative called Krishna. It so happened that the time came when they had to fight a battle against each other."
"But that's not fair. 5 against 100?" she said, already sympathizing with the five.
"Don't worry. Those 5 are as good as the 100 combined. The real deal lies in procuring good allies. Both of them knew that Krishna's support would matter a lot. So on one fine day, one from the 100 called Duryodhana, and one from the five called Arjuna went to Krishna. Obviously Krishna being a relative to both, he knew how tricky the situation was. But he also knew that he should support the good ones for the prosperity of the world. So he created an army 10000 strong with each soldier matching his strength. First, he asked Arjuna to make a choice between him alone, and that army. Krishna also said that he would not fight in the battle, while the 10000 men would. When Arjuna chose Krishna, Duryodhana was so relieved that he laughed at Arjuna for having been a stupid to make that kind of choice."
She looks at me with a kind of expression that seemed like asking me questions like, "But why did Arjuna do that?!"
"As always, a given narration can be interpreted in different ways. Those 10000 men might equal Krishna in their strength, but they cannot play the role of Krishna, which is to guide and advise through difficult times. Arjuna himself was a fierce warrior. He knew very well what he further needs to win the war, which is the unparalled wisdom of Krishna."
She still kept thinking about it and tried to make some sense out it.
"For instance, when the two groups meet on the battle ground with their huge allies, Arjuna drops the weapons and cries kneeling before Krishna, saying that he cannot fight and kill his own brothers, relatives and grand fathers just for the sake of the kingdom. But Krishna helps him to regain his strength."
"But that's not good? The god is asking him to kill?"
"Let me put it in a tangible way. Let's say you saw a little kitty being chased by a fierce dog. What would you do?"
"Save the poor thing, ofcourse!"
"That is exactly what Arjuna has to do too! Those 100 men are like fierce dogs. The unhappy people in their reign and the his own people are like kitties. Arjuna should do exactly what you just said you would do. Save the kitties from dogs!"
"... (still thinking about it)"
"You know what karma refers to?"
"Yes, of course!"
"Here, the inference is not the killing part. Krishna lectures Arjuna telling him that people should not be deterred from doing something that appeals to the self as good, from the fear of acquiring bad karma. In our example, you are saving kitty, but taking away the food of the dog, which in the dogs point of view is bad. If you keep thinking about this and fear acquiring a bad karma, you would never be able to save the kitty. This example can sometimes guide us in making few decisions which are difficult, leaving aside the guilt part."
She gave a good thought for it and after thinking for a while, finally she appreciates the story. She said, "We never study so much about a religion, do they teach this at your schools?"
"That's not allowed, India is a secular nation. No religion is official, so we do not have any religion at schools."
"Where do you study these things then?"
"Many of us read, since they are all stories and are very captivating. We also have innumerable movies on these books."
"So anyway, like this one, we have several of those stories and plenty of characters in them. Each of them has something to tell us. For instance, the volume called Mahabharata is said to cover every aspect of a human life. Thus, for me, Hinduism just gives you these wonderful stories and you can choose whom/what you want to learn from."
"But there are bad ones too!"
"You are right, and people do associate some of the best qualities with them. For example, the eldest of the 100, Duryodhana is respected and held high for his unparalleled love towards his friend, all the while being condemned for every other thing he does."
"So all the people in Hinduism do not have same beliefs?"
"I would say they do not. I would not group everyone under the same religion. Some sects in Hinduism differ a lot. Even my beliefs differ quite a lot from my Mother's. Of course, as a personal inference, I might as well claim that a Hindu can mould him/herself to be an ardent orthodox, or an atheist."
Saving the rest of the discussion on religion for another day, we took off from there to Rama chandra guha's book, India after Gandhi. At the end, she is quite excited about her upcoming tentative trip to India & Nepal. I hope I have helped her gain some insight which will keep her from looking at India with an oriental attitude (which is as prevalent in India as it was/is in West).