Culture vs Religion: Whose festival is it?

I am not a Malayali but as someone who has studied in Christ University, Bangalore (We often called it Mini Kerala), I got an opportunity to know and understand Malayalis closely. I even happened to share my hostel room with Malayalis for 2 years. Before the liberals brand me as a conservative Sanghi, I must share that I am a Brahmin who enjoyed his dinner in a small Kerala Mess (Run by Christian where they served beef also) for 2 years while I was in Bangalore.  I am not a Bengali either but I am fortunate to have many Bengalis as my friends close friends and I absolutely adore them and their culture. I started hopping the Durga Pujo pandals with them sometime in 2011. Post College, we all moved to different places but I always make it a point to visit a pandal every year during the Pujo; something which has stayed with me.

Now, there is never a dull day on twitter. Today, someone who is a Bengali tweeted that Durga Puja isn’t about religion. It’s cultural. More than amused, I was angry and I wrote that it’s very much a Hindu festival and liberals should not try to hijack it as a “cultural” festival like they have done with Onam. Within minutes, I had people attacking me, calling me a ‘Cockroach’ who has come out only post 2014 (They have to somehow get Modi in between), ‘Sanghi bastard’ and I was told to shove my opinion in my non-Bong ass. None of the liberals who otherwise play victim when abused came to my rescue but that’s not the point here because we know how hypocritical liberals are. Immediately, a Malayali also jumped in and took offence, saying a ‘North Indian’ should not preach us and that’s why you got only one seat (Again, BJP has to come in from somewhere. Referring to the one seat it won in Kerala recently). I was also told that I should be appreciating that people from all religions are celebrating a festival. The 140 word limit often limits us to express so I thought why not write about it hoping it will knock some sense in the liberal minds.

Historically, India has been a country which has been quite tolerant and I believe in spite of the aberrations (riots, beef lynching) we have a multi religious, multi cultural, multi lingual, multi ethnic society and our rich diversity along with inherent pluralism are our greatest strengths. We call it ‘Ganga Jamuni’ tehzeeb in the North and I am sure it is called something in other parts of India also. So, people who wanted me to feel good about it should know that I am very proud of it. Now, coming to the point of festivals.


I am Hindu but I enjoy my Sheer Korma on Eid. My land lady in Hyderabad was a Muslim and she always made it a point to send across some seviyan every year. I have often gone to the Church with my Christian friends on Easter and I grew up with my parents keeping chocolates under the pillow saying Santa Claus has gifted them. I also love the Kada prashad in Gurudwaras and the Chabeel which the Sikhs serve on roadside. And it’s not just me, I know many non-Hindus who play Holi and burst crackers on Diwali, Sikhs fasting during Navratra etcetera etcetera. But, does that make all of these ‘cultural’ festivals? Hell, NO! These remain Muslim, Christian, Sikh and Hindu festivals. As I said earlier, because of our all-encompassing culture, we see that many non-believers become a part of the festivities but let’s not be factually incorrect and take away the historical significance of the festival. What’s worrying is that this is done only to Hindu festivals and not any other. Any reason why Eid or Christmas are not called ‘cultural festivals’? I await the answers!

I also wonder what does ‘celebration’ of a festival mean. Just because I eat sheer korma on Eid or believed in Santa Claus as a kid can I say that I ‘celebrate’ these festivals? Just because some folks enjoy the food at various Durga Pujo pandals, apply some color on Holi and make lavish Onam Sadya at their homes, can we say they ‘celebrate’ these festivals? I believe we cannot because these festivals have a deeper religious context and belief which should be respected and should not be ignored. Holi is not just about playing colors because it’s also about Holika Dahan, Diwali is not just about bursting crackers, it’s about Laxmi Pujan too. Similarly, Durga Pujo is about having Maa in your homes, worshipping her, offering her flowers (Anjali on Ashtami), Sindoor khela and not just about having a great time like visiting a mela. Likewise, Eid is not just about having Sewiyan or Biryani and Christmas not just about having a Turkey. So, let’s just say that we enjoy, eat and take part in the festivals but we DON’T ‘celebrate’ them.

I was snubbed some time back by a Malayali friend when I said that Onam is a Hindu festival & he with great pride said ‘You don’t know about our culture’. Yes, I might not know but I definitely know that King Mahabali and Vamana are not characters from the Bible or Quran.  ‘Thrikkaran Appan‘ refers to the statue which the Malayalis make during Onam and it represents the ‘Vamana’ avtar of Lord Vishnu. Do Christians make this? Do churches allow this to be worshipped in churches on Onam? Do mosques hold special prayers during Onam? The answer is NO. On the contrary an imam recently asked the Muslims to not celebrate Onam as it’s unislamic. Similarly, the Abrahamic religions don’t even have the concept of idol worship so what are we even talking? Durga is a Hindu Goddess! And I find it absolutely preposterous that someone can dare to say that Durga Puja is not about religion. If it’s really not about religion then why are we reading reports of 300 Hindu families unable to perform Durga puja anticipating backlash from Muslims?  Or why don’t we see Bengali Christians or Muslims worshiping and bowing before Durga in Pandals and singing the aarti?

What’s interesting is that the two festivals (Onam, Durga Puja) which are now being re-branded are celebrated in states which have long been under the governance of Left which has pathological hate for anything Hindu. So, this shouldn’t come as a surprise that we have a generation of brain washed Hindus who now find it cool and feel proud that these festivals are more cultural than religious. It’s a dangerous trend because these festivals are part of the our culture, ethos and our existence. While Holi asks us to burn the inner evils; Dusshera marks the victory of good over evil. These festivals come with small life lessons which are instilled in us since childhood and they eventually make up the culture which we all should happily embrace and not shun or feel ashamed about it.

On that note, Shubho Pujo!

P.S.: Onam and Durga Puja do have a cultural context. Former represents the culture of Kerala while the latter of Bengal just like Garbha belongs to Gujarat and Pongal to Tamil Nadu BUT they have religious significance also and they are essentially Hindu.


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