We are planning on visiting our native places in India around the midyear mark to visit friends and relatives. This will be a very special visit as it is the first time we are going with our baby daughter. Needless to say, there is a lot of excitement on both sides and already loads of plans are being made about places to visit whilst in India, the shopping to be done in preparation for the trip, all the things we need to carry for our infant, etc. I was really looking forward to it – till my mother-in-law dropped the bombshell. In one recent phone conversations, she mentioned that she would like to take her granddaughter to Tirupati for a head tonsuring ceremony.
For my non-Indian friends, Tirupati is a major pilgrimage place for Hindus as it houses the temple of Lord Venkateshwara. This temple is the most visited place of worship in the world and on an average, around 30 to 40 million devotees visit the temple each year. One of the most significant features of the temple is that thousands of devotees get their heads tonsured here and offer their hair to the deity. Over a ton of hair is collected each day and this hair is later auctioned to international buyers to be used as hair extensions or in hair products.
I had always considered this act of head tonsuring to be weird, not to mention faintly barbaric. I could never understand what God would do with all that hair – surely he has loads of his own!!! So when told that my poor baby daughter is to be tonsured soon, I was appalled and I admit I have secretly been worrying over this ever since.
I did not mention anything to my mother-in-law at that time. I know she means well. However subjecting a ten month old baby to this seems like extreme cruelty to me. I fail to see how sacrificing my infant’s hair is going to provide her good karma for all her life. Besides doesn’t the word sacrifice mean giving something up of one’s own free will? How is that relevant for a baby who cannot make any decisions for herself?
I admit I have some shallow reasons too for balking at the hair tonsuring. My daughter would be having her first birthday shortly after the India trip. Do I want her to be sporting the bald look at one of the greatest milestones in her young life – her first birthday party? Not really. Besides my baby was born with very little hair and I had worried a bit about it when I noticed other young babies with full heads of hair. Now she is getting lovely silky hair of her own and I am so proud of that. To think that would all be gone again makes me shudder.
More than the cosmetic reasons, what irks me most about this whole thing is that I do not even believe in these rituals. I have visited the Tirupati temple in the past. There is no doubting that the place is place has a grandeur of its own and it is amazing to find people from all walks of life there. However it was so crowded that it took us ages to reach the sanctum sanctorum and when we did, in the place of prayers the thought of a possible stampede kept preying on my mind!
I confess that I am not an overly religious person. Sure, I believe in God – but I like to believe that I have a personal relationship with my God and that does not require much outward trappings in the way of rites, rituals and ceremonies. My parents are Hindus and they brought me up as one, acquainting me with all of Hinduism’s myriad gods and goddess and its zillions of festivals. However they never imposed the stricter rules of the religion on me – there was no pressure on me to fast on certain days or be vegetarian on others or visit the temple every so often. Instead they drummed into me the fact that the basic tenet of any religion and all religions is that one should be good and kind to one’s fellowmen and that is the surest way of pleasing God.
When I got married, it was into a family of devout Brahmins. I had no problems getting along with my in-laws as such. They are really nice people – caring and affectionate. Everyone went out of their way to welcome me into the family. We spent a happy ten days with my extended family of in-laws after the marriage. It was mostly great fun except for one thing. Everyone in my new family was very religious. My mother-in-law visited the temple twice a day and also spent hours in veneration at home. Everyone else too followed elaborate daily rituals and special ones on the auspicious days. I felt like a fish in the Sahara. I had no idea what I was supposed to do and I was scared of offending my new relatives. When my ignorance became glaringly obvious, the females in the family took it upon themselves to impart as much knowledge about the household rituals as possible within the limited time I had with them. They took me to numerous temples, explained what offerings I needed to make to particular gods on certain days, also taught me the use of different veneration items like the vermilion, the rice grains,the camphor and the lamps. To be fair, I guess they abbreviated the rituals quite a bit for someone who knew nothing and would be living far away from India. However it still felt like an information overload to me as I was an absolute novice in these matters. And of course there was that tiny voice at the back of my mind all the time – Do I really believe in these trappings of religion?
Once I reached Australia, it was not that bad. My mother-in-law would ask me over the phone to follow certain rites at particular times of the year. I would try to follow her advice as best as I could (with some modifications of my own!) but of course things were not difficult as there was no one around to really judge me. My husband knows my limitations and he generally has no outward demands in this – though at times when I slip up in something he considers really basic, I feel he does get a bit disappointed.
Now this head tonsuring issue is hanging over my head like the proverbial sword of Damocles. I cannot decide on what to do. Should I stand up for my convictions and tell my in-laws that I do not believe in ritualistic worship and thereby hurt their feelings? Or should I keep the peace and go ahead with the whole thing , choosing instead to shed a few private tears with my baby after she is tonsured?
This whole thing is also making me wonder about a bigger issue. What sort of religious teachings am I going to impart to my daughter? Shall I teach her the notion of a flexible religion as my parents taught me and have her lead a life that has less piety and rigidity? Or should I try to push her into the excessively religious ways of my in-laws in the hope that she gains loads of good karma for this life and the next one? There are no easy way out. Me and my husband have divided opinions on this and I am sure you can figure out what our respective stands are! Maybe we should just leave the choice for our daughter to make once she is old enough.