It was a during a train journey from Bangalore to Chennai when our interviewer Arun chanced to get one of the most riveting interviews for Interviewing India. In this interview, Nisha Subramanian a researcher by profession delves into her journey and transformation from being a child brought up in a family of strong believers and hence being one, to using atheism as a tool to register her rebellion in her years of growing up, to maturing into a confident agnostic woman who understands and accepts that the essence of life is to grow and attempt to understand others’ opinions too.
Read on to find about Nisha’s journey to becoming a malleable person who believes in incremental change and being open to everyone’s different perspectives…
Nisha Subramanian, 23 years, Researcher, Bangalore
Interviewed by Arun Maharajan
Why did you decide to give us an interview on religion?
When it comes to religion, I have had an interesting journey. I was born into a family that strongly believes in religion.
A mega-conservative family?
I wouldn’t say mega-conservative, but they have their beliefs. Being born into a family like that, you are pushed into religion, because that’s a norm. And then in a rebellious phase of my life, also being the time when I was not as well-read as today (not that I am as well-read as I would like to be, even today), I felt a strong hatred (pauses)… Well not hatred but resistance.
What was this resistance towards?
Resistance, a bit of indifference towards religion, and then I read Hitchens and stuff like that. You know, you read God Delusion when you are an atheist. I was following the atheist movement that’s happening in the US. My sister is also a very strong atheist. My parents found out about it, and they were okay with it. Then I started my Masters and I came in contact with a lot of texts that have to do with traditions and cultures and religion. Religion is perhaps one of the strongest identities that you will have.
Like Nationality? Which runs very deep…
Yes, a sort of community. Just like nationality. Everything that you see today – politically – how that is charged, similarly religion is also charged. It is one of the strongest identities that you have. If you look at atheism, it is very science oriented. It is a scientific way of looking at the world. It is way too rational. I feel that rationality takes away space from culture. I experienced this through a lot of text I read, through a lot of communities that I interacted with, as I understood their belief systems.
So you are not as much of an atheist as your sister then?
No. In fact, every time I interact with my sister now, we are always at loggerheads. She is a hyper-rational person. She’s a scientist, she’s doing her Ph.D right now. It’s not that I am not rational, but I have become a little more malleable, I have become a little more open to different perspectives that people bring to the table, be it about God, be it about life, be it about the Universe.
That was essentially my journey from being a believer, to becoming an atheist and eventually an agnostic right now. I will keep my belief to myself. I don’t believe that God exists, but I will not mock you or dismiss your opinion of God, or your belief that God exists.
What brought about this malleability? This sounds very interesting – this shift from being an atheist to agnostic.
The first thing that comes to my mind is this semi-academic paper written by Shiv Visvanathan. He writes for the Hindu. He had spoken in that paper specifically about how hegemonic science is. Because of the hegemony of science, so many traditional knowledge systems have disappeared over time. You will see examples of this in any part of India that you go to. And it is true for the rest of the world too. So that imposition of an ideology, it made me sort of see through two lenses. One is – the social system of thought which sometimes are related to ideas of religion, ideas of God, and that has already been pried away. Now a hyper-national school of thought called Atheism is doing the same to religions right now. Sometimes, I feel atheism in itself is becoming a very aggressive, fundamentalist religion, and that upsets me.
So the fundamentalism of atheism and how it is eating away those things that evolved over a period of time organically. Is that what caused this change?
I think atheists come from the point of view that, sometimes if you want to see change, you need to be revolutionary, and that is what the atheism movement is trying to do.
Though, I believe in incremental change, I really do. I say this in office, I say this to myself. I have seen how I have changed over the last eight years, which has been a very transitional period. Your late teens and your early twenties, is a very transitional period. And I believe in that incremental change. I feel that as you go through life, you change. Maybe tomorrow, for some reason, I would again become an atheist.
That said, I disagree with this idea that religion is the cause of many problems in the world. I think that is a very stupid assumption, extrapolation to make.
Can you explain?
This specifically comes from one conversation that I have had with one acquaintance of mine, where he said, if you look at all the problems in the world right now, it is because of religion. And I always stop these people and say, the problem is not religion, the problem is power. Who has the power? In any equation, that’s the first thing that you need to think about. If I think about relationships in my house, in my life, power is something I always think about.
When I think about my girlfriend, I think about the power equation we have between us. And if you think there is no power equation, you are kidding yourself. Because there is always somebody who has the upper hand, and there is someone who doesn’t. And it’s not static either. For example, let’s say my girlfriend and I are in our house, and I am a very vocal person in the house, whereas she is a very vocal person outside. The power equation shifts automatically. It’s a very crude simple example, but it is true.
Does thinking about religion right now, the way it is, make you angry?
Some things about it do make me angry. Especially in this country right now, it makes me angry that we have a political scenario where the minorities are singled out. It’s unbelievable.
So how do you practice or not practice your agnosticism?
That’s a very interesting question. I don’t try too hard. I say phrases like ‘Oh my God’ – when you step on somebody you do this, when you step on a book you do this (gesticulates hand movement seeking forgiveness/praying). These are gestures of a larger existence, scheme of thought, and I have not been able to get rid of it. I am not sure if I even want to get rid of it. I like the way I speak, I like the way I behave…but I don’t know…I have a picture of Murugan at home, which my mother gave me and said, “Keep it there.” And I was like, “Ok fine. If it makes you happy.” I have a picture of Guruvayurappan, which my father gave me and I kept it. It’s there, it’s just sitting there. Before they come, I might just dust it, maybe put an agarbatti (incense stick) there. But, yeah, in my house, books surround the pictures of God. It’s in a bookshelf, where at the center is God. I always, immediately, get distracted by the books.
I don’t actively disparage religion now. Okay I will give you an example, the difference between my sister and I is that she actively dislikes going to temples, whereas I would go if that’s what pleases my mother. I respect their emotions, and would go a mile for them if it is not strangling something I believe in.
The last question has nothing to do with your interview topic. But we ask everyone we interview – what does love mean to you?
Oh, that’s a crazy question. To me, love is just being around. It’s a crazy leap of faith you put in yourself and another person, be it your parents/siblings/friends/partners. I also don’t think I have loved enough. I think I’m yet to go down that romanticized spiral that will crush me and then slowly let me heal.